Saturday, February 26, 2011

Wheelmarks in the Snow

Over at Sulako's Blog I started to comment on a post last year, but my comment got too long, so I decided to haul it back here to my own soapbox. Sulako was discussing an accident report in which an airplane he had once flown was written off. It's a weird feeling every time that happens: learning that the airplane that once carried you safely will never fly again. It's a little bit like hearing that an actor or author whom you didn't know personally, but whose work you admired, has died. If you live in a small community where you know who owns your old car, I guess you might find out if it was wrecked, but with airplanes accident reports are public and the identifiers don't usually change, so you can recognize your old ride at once.

In the post Sulako asks what you would have done if you had an hours-old report that the runway was snow covered, but snow removal was in progress. The accident crew proceeded to the aerodrome and lost control on landing, in unexpectedly deep snow.

I would have done the same. Unless weather forecasts indicated that it was still snowing at YYW and that I could expect a new accumulation by nightfall, the information the crew received made it sound as though the runway would be clear for their arrival. I would have thought that "in progress" meant that the crew was out there now ploughing, or at least starting up the plough, not that they were seriously thinking about maybe doing it tomorrow. If something happened to the plough while it was working, I would expect an urgent NOTAM to be issued, and passed to me as I updated my weather en route.

I feel for that crew. Beginning to flare over an all white surface, you really can't tell if it's "an unexpected amount of snow," a thin layer of ice, or some kind of twilight zone nothingness that will devour your airplane entirely. And as you touch down you can't really see the runway at all, just strive to keep straight from other cues. You know it should be under your wheels is all.

I've usually found airports tended better than I would expect, for example the time I called an operator to find out what the CFS called "limited winter maintenance" meant at his aerodrome. He said, "that means I don't clear the runway between midnight and five a.m. unless there's a medevac." I had been expecting something like the runway not being cleared to the full width or length, not cleared until snow was no longer forecast or only cleared in daylight. I've encountered some of those.

Ironically, the first time I learned of an airplane from my logbook being written off, it was also a landing accident in deep snow. In this case the airport in question was listed as "no winter maintenance," and the tendency of the rental pilots to obey laws was proven to be low, as their aircraft was also loaded over gross with bales of marijuana. Apparently while the accident pilot was awaiting trial, he had the temerity to go back to the same company and ask to rent another airplane!


D.B. said...

The first Sundowner I ever flew was later destroyed in a CFIT crash in Georgia, unfortunately also destroying the pilot. But I remembered how sweet it was, and later bought my own, and made sure both it and the pilot were ready for IMC. The Cessna 152 i did my private pilot check ride in was in the local news a few years later for a successful off-field emergency landing, that also bent the front wheel. Your right - it is weird.

Frank Ch. Eigler said...

"I would have done the same."

To what extent is there a reckless ignorance at play though? One would be aware of one's uncertainty about the state of the runway. One would know that actually touching down on an unexpectedly white runway is an assumption of risk. Other than the medevac mission mindset, what would make it worth it?

Jez said...

The plane I did some of my ab initio training in (a Cessna 152, VH-FMG in Australia), crashed after a mid-air collision near Bankstown, Sydney, killing the student pilot and instructor.

I'm not sure it's all that great a thing that you can track what happens to planes you knew and all I will remember is the two lives that it ended.

Rob said...


Although being an Aussie I have never had to deal with snow. If I had a equivalent NOTAM I would go. The only additional thing I might do is ring the aerodrome operator to confirm. But I would not doubt that the runway should be cleared in the 2 hours. I would however be extra careful when landing, possibly even flying a circuit to inspect the field before touching down even.

X-av8r said...

When I was 19 years old I bought an old Stinson SR-5. I had the grand total of 15 hours in a J-3 Cub and was on a student license. This old Stinson and I had a love/hate relationship. I was sure it was trying to kill me, and then would change its mind right at the last moment. I really got to respect this old monster, because it was so tough. I put it through some pretty dire situations while it was teaching me the realities of aviation. Some of the landings were so bad that I wouldn't even talk to my best friends about and it took it all with no strain. After earning my Private license I sold the plane and went on to College, etc. Many years later, I heard that it had been envolved in a some kind of operation out of a cow pasture and hit a drainage ditch and rolled it up into a ball. I figured that someone had the wreckage stashed away somewhere awaiting a rebuild. Now, being much older, I tried to trace it down and went through all the channels. Even the FAA doesn't know where it is and there was no accident report ever filed. Someone is keeping very quiet about what really happened. It's like losing an old friend that you shared some good old times with.

Michael5000 said...

The phrase "snow removal was in progress" would kind of scare this armchair pilot, but that might just be the Pacific Western 314 crash talking.

Chris said...

I've had two reactions after hearing the loss of an aircraft I once flew. Sometimes you feel a sense of sadness, like a friend you haven't seen in years passed away.

I remember when BXJ was written off, the two occupants escaping OK and thinking they did everyone a favour, remembering what an old pig of a thing it was to fly.

majroj said...

A pilot who ignorantly landed at Offutt AFB without a radio (used crop duster being ferried) in early morning fog, after being arrested then released and refuled by Transient Maintenance, later that day was flying east into the sun in fog and fatally crashed into an Iowa cornfield. THe guiy was so ingraiating and clueless...maybe not good qualities for a pilot?

majroj said...

If hearing about a former ride crashing seems spooky, try walking aroujnd an entire air base you served at and now it is nearly deserted!