Acknowledgements: AIR FACTS/John Zimmerman

A check-ride is always a stressful time for student pilots, as months of preparation culminate in a big test and hopefully a new certificate. It’s also a time when new pilots go from the clearly defined instructor-student relationship to the much fuzzier examiner-applicant relationship. Who’s in charge? The simple answer is the applicant, but an accident from late 2013 shows how tricky this question can be in real life. It also offers some lessons for all pilots.

The student pilot wasn’t going far in his rented Cessna 182, just 20 nm to a neighboring airport to meet a designated pilot examiner for his Private Pilot practical test. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t cooperating, with a 600 ft. overcast and 4 miles visibility at his departure airport. The pilot called the examiner to discuss the weather, and the accident report included the following.

According to the Examiner, the student pilot called him on the morning of the accident and informed him there was a cloud deck at his departure airfield. He told the student that the cloud deck was probably a thin layer which would burn off, and that he should make the flight after the weather cleared up.

How this was interpreted by the pilot we’ll never know, but a short time later surveillance cameras at the airport show the 182 departing. The airplane flew just two miles on runway heading before crashing and killing the pilot. Examination of the airplane did not show any mechanical malfunctions or pre-impact failures. It appears to be a simple VFR-into-IMC accident.

Unlike some of these scenarios, the pilot didn’t stumble into ever-worsening weather. He was aware of this as demonstrated by his phone call to the examiner. So why would he launch into weather that was obviously unsafe for VFR flight?

The report makes note of the student’s known “gung-ho” personality, suggesting he was not afraid to take some risk. He was a successful, goal-oriented person who viewed aviation as a way to support his business, and his flight instructor had previously warned him about trying to “push too hard” to complete a trip.

So, on the surface this may sound like a reckless pilot who did not recognize his limitations, which may be part of it but other details suggest this to be an oversimplification. According to the CFI the student was feeling self-imposed pressure to complete his flight training, and this combined with his personality created the possibility of a potentially unsafe flight. 

With that in mind, the examiner’s comment about the cloud deck burning off seems like the final straw. Here is a much more experienced pilot suggesting that the clouds are not a major problem, since they will not last long. While the examiner clearly said he should not fly until after the weather cleared up, the student may have taken that as encouragement to make the trip. He may have heard what he wanted to hear. And it was only a 20 mile flight.

Regardless of the pilot’s thinking, this accident is a reminder for all pilots that only the person controlling the yoke is pilot in command. That authority cannot be outsourced to anyone else and whilst saying “No”, even to implicit pressure or harmless suggestions, is sometimes hard to learn, it’s a life-saving skill, which faces pilots of all experience levels.
  •  When a controller says there’s a gap in the weather but you’re not sure, do you resist that subtle pressure? 
  • When a mechanic says the airplane is ready to go but you have your doubts, do you trust your own judgment?
  • When a flying buddy says the weather is good enough to go but it’s below your personal minima, do you stand firm?

 These are all hard questions, and of course the right answer is not necessarily to cancel every flight at the first sign of trouble. But there is only one vote that counts in the go/no go decision: that of the PIC. Guard that power jealously.

Tony Birth