Someone once said, “If you don’t think too good, then don’t think too much.” I can recall a few aircraft accidents that really didn’t take much thinking on anyone’s part to investigate. Sure, as an aircraft accident investigator there are certain rules about maintaining one’s objectivity, gathering factual information, and never jumping to a conclusion, but when the smoke clears sometimes you just scratch your head and say “what was this pilot thinking?” These are the kind of accidents that really aren’t accidents. All the circumstances were deliberately put in place to produce the results. It would have been an accident if the crash hadn’t resulted.
Several years ago the pilot of a twin-engine corporate jet was preparing for a flight and was unable to get one of the engines started due to a failed starter. Rather than ground the aircraft and have repairs done locally our hero, who was anxious to depart, reasoned that he could do an “air-start” once airborne to get the second engine turning. All he would have to do is take off on one-engine. The results were predictable. During the attempted single engine take-off he learned that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. He rapidly lost control of the jet and crashed before becoming airborne. He survived, but the plane and his career were a total loss.
One of my memorable accident investigations involved an instructor and his commercial student who attempted a landing at a snow-covered mountain airport in the Sierras. This particular airport was unoccupied throughout the year so there was no information available on the runway conditions. From the air, the pilots could see wheel tracks in the snow, which obviously meant that other aircraft had landed there. What they did not know was that the tracks on the runway below were made by snowmobiles.
Upon touch down the plane came to a rather abrupt stop as it plowed through the deeper than expected snow, but was otherwise undamaged. Since they could not taxi back, the instructor and the student decided to push the plane back to beginning of the runway in order to take-off. During the first take-off attempt, the plane bogged down in the snow again this time putting a mild bend in the prop blade. Not quite ready to call it a day, they pushed the plane back and tried to take off again. Since this particular plane was not snowplow equipped and already flight impaired from the bent prop, the aircraft’s nose dug in deep enough on the take-off roll to flip the plane over on its back.
While the above stories do have an amusing quality to them, the sad part is that there are many more where these came from and some of the results are far from amusing. As pilots, we accept certain inherent risks as part of our flying and we manage those risks to make our aviating as safe as possible. When a pilot deliberately creates an unnecessary risk and steps outside the boundaries of common sense and reasonable aeronautical decision-making, he is no longer a pilot, but rather a spectator on his way to the scene of an accident.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by Ken Steiner prior to his retirement from the United States Aircraft Insurance Group as a Vice-President and Claims Manager. During his career, Ken investigated thousands of aircraft accidents involving small planes, crop dusters, helicopters, corporate aircraft, and airliners. He has been on-site at over 100 fatal aircraft accident investigations. He is currently an Aviation Investigative Consultant and is also a Pilot and Tactical Flight Officer for the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Air Support Unit. He owns a Cessna 182 based at San Carlos and holds ATP and CFI certificates with over 5000 flying hours.