The end of innocence

Nothing prepares you in life, to face death. In my previous articles I’ve tried to show how quickly and innocently mortal danger sneaks up on the unwary in aviation. Even if you’ve had the best training in the world, it’s experience that develops that invaluable ‘sixth sense.’ That ‘inner voice’ that’s saved countless aviators and their passengers from premature doom. The trick is, living long enough, (without making too many serious mistakes,) to be able to gain the benefit from that experience. And that is precisely the reason learning from other people’s mistakes is so vitally important in this job! It sounds morose, and maybe it is – but if you stick around long enough in this business, you are going to lose a few friends. That is inevitable. But that’s life. Aviation, like motor racing, by its very nature is almost unique in this regard. Particularly general aviation. After awhile you cynically come to expect it. You even start wondering who’s going to be next! Will it be me? This is a morbid way to start a story, but indulge me awhile. If you’ve ever had the unpleasant experience of witnessing an aircraft crash, you’ll know where I’m going with this.

The first crash I ever witnessed was my ab-initio instructor, Pat Eilers performing a low level roll in a Cessna 150 over the apron at Lanseria in 1977. I was signing out the ‘autho’ sheet before taking my first passengers for a flip with my brand new PPL. Kerry Swift, a well known journalist, had paid for my very first flying lesson a year previously. In return I’d promised he and his wife Sheryl would be my very first passengers.

From the corner of my eye I saw the little orange and white Aerobat swooping in from the west. With our attention quickly drawn to him, Pat pulled up directly in front of us and started a roll to the left from a height of about fifty feet. I still remember the starburst design on the upper surface of the wings as he rotated, seemingly in slow motion, above us. Then the nose slipped below the horizon, and the sickening thud as he hit the pavement in a nose down, wing low attitude; just missing the corner of the old Jarlin hangar. There was a brief fire, which Rowan Torr the fire chief, extinguished in seconds. Then the cacophony of sirens, vehicles and people who extricated him from the wreckage into the ambulance. Pat hadn’t been wearing a shoulder harness. They reckoned it might have saved him. He lasted the night. It was awful, but thankfully no one was with him. What makes a grown man do something so inexplicably foolish? It turned out he’d just become engaged to be married and his youthful exuberance had got the better of him.

This happened 32 years ago and I can still recall the tiniest of details. Watching your instructor kill himself in front of you isn’t the greatest way of kicking off your flying career. It scars you for life. But perhaps something useful could be gained from the experience. That day I was taught a graphic lesson in the rules of the game. If you step out of line in this business, don’t expect any forgiveness; not from the CAA, your passengers, or the legal system! Those rules and regulations were written in blood. There’s a reason they’re there. Disregard them at your peril.

During the formative years of my career, I was closely associated with many interesting though gruesome crashes. Mostly involving people I gratefully didn’t know. In hindsight, all held valuable lessons and I should have been paying better attention if I’d been wiser. Hence the reason I tell my students about them now.

Like the one about the guy who hired a flight school’s best IFR trainer, a pristine little Piper Cherokee Archer (the very same aircraft in which I’d nearly wiped out my family a few months before!) and tried to fly his family to Gaberone in overcast weather. He held a valid night rating and a few hundred hours which he thought was sufficient to pop through the cloud and over the Magaliesberg to where it was clear. The wreckage was spread over such a wide area there wasn’t enough fuel in one place to burn. Graveyard spiral. He’d torn the wings off long before they’d hit the ground. All he’d needed to do was engage the autopilot in ‘heading mode,’ then sit back and watch it do its job. Two buttons, that’s all. But without the proper training and experience it would’ve taken nerves of steel to do even that. Rationally of course he shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Same with the guy who buried his family in the hillside one moonless night after takeoff from Sun City. Spatial disorientation. He’d held an expired Instrument Rating with hundreds of hours on his beautiful Beechcraft Bonanza. Without ‘aeronautical wisdom,’ a Night Rating or an Instrument Rating can be a very dangerous qualification. But unfortunately like most young men I needed to arrive at that conclusion in my own way.

Around that time I took a job flying freight in a single-engine A36 Bonanza. The pay was lousy but I really needed the hours and this was an easy way to get them. Takeoff from Lanseria was timed to land at Virginia by sunup. I’d spend the day exploring the Durban museum before being picked up for the return flight home at 8pm. “Bad decision, taking that job,” my father warned me. “Single engine at night over a route notorious for dubious weather. What the hell are you thinking my boy!” Of course he was right, but being the rebellious adolescent, I went ahead anyway.

I only flew that route ONCE. It was nearly midnight when I eventually stumbled home on wobbly knees. My father was waiting patiently for me in his pub. He was half plastered… He had phoned ATC to get my ETA and had heard about the enroute weather. The thunderstorms had terrified both of us so badly; I promised him I’d never to do it again. (It’s really cruel how we scare our parents growing up and my youngest son is busy meeting out his grandfather’s revenge with his Xtreme Downhill Cycling.) The next day I explained to the boss that he needed to find another pilot.

There was no shortage of volunteers and the next sucker was an ex-airforce helicopter pilot who needed hours on fixed wing machines. Not a week later, he dug himself a three meter deep crater near the little town of Vrede. The accident report suspected instrument failure during the same weather conditions I’d faced that night. Although I hadn’t known the guy, that accident really shook me up. It could have been me, and the last awful seconds of his life kept flashing through my mind. I needed to wisen up fast if I was going to survive in this business. I needed to start listening to those older and wiser than me. Maybe I even needed a mentor (who was there all along.) Although I wasn’t totally oblivious of the risks, my youthful appetite for danger was far too high. More than anything, I needed a healthy dose of aeronautical common sense!

But who teaches common sense? How do you acquire this rare and valuable quality? Where can you buy this trait? You can’t. Either you have it or you don’t. Like wisdom, it’s routed in your upbringing. Nurtured in your cultural environment. To develop it you must learn from experience. Not exclusively your own either. Learning from others experience goes a long way in developing wisdom and I spend an inordinate amount of time explaining the value of history to my children. (If our politicians and business leaders would learn from their predecessors, perhaps it wouldn’t be necessary to constantly repeat history!) In aviation though, common sense and wisdom are characterized by a healthy respect for your aircrafts limitations and your own human frailties and abilities.

Some years ago a friend asked me to fly his sons from George to Capetown for a rugby match in his Piper Chieftain. The weather was low overcast and raining so he wisely wouldn’t do it himself. Although I was current, I looked at those naked little wings and politely declined. He was astonished! His aircraft was equipped with everything a pilot could wish for. Three axis autopilot coupled to GPS, Flight Director, weather-radar, standby instruments, the works. He’d even fly as co-pilot. Why would an airline captain balk at such a simple favour for a friend? Two reasons. Firstly, I was not current on his aircraft under those conditions. In those conditions I like some backup. I’m used to operating with a highly trained crew in an environment where we can manage all our threats and challenges more effectively. And that’s where the other problem lay! His Chieftain didn’t have deicing boots! If I picked up wing icing, I would have no easy way of dealing with it. It would be like taking a knife to a gunfight! There was a cold front riding up the coast with a surface temperature of 10 degrees. The freezing level would likely be in the region of 5000 feet and I wasn’t certain we’d be above the cloud by then. Outwardly it may have seemed a little conservative, but I’d long since learnt to listen to my inner voice, warning me of impending danger. Wing icing without the proper equipment is a real show stopper!

Years earlier I would have had no problem doing this flight, at a time when my experience level was much lower. Yet now, with thousands more hours in my logbook, I wouldn’t touch it! Even as a favour for a friend. Not because my nerves were finally frazzled, but because I knew someone who’d been shot in that movie before!

My old charter buddy, Dave had once flown a Cessna 421 Golden Eagle from Rand Airport to Plettenberg Bay. It was his first pressurized twin and he felt like an airline pilot, riding up at Flight Level 200 for the first time. Up ahead the clouds towered above him and he climbed once more to get over them. There were no red thunderstorm cells painting on the radar though at FL240 it became evident they’d be in cumulus most of the way. At that height they were well above the freezing level but the 421 had de-icing boots and prop heaters, so he didn’t anticipate a problem. Almost immediately entering the cloud he noticed the first rime ice forming on the windshield. It would melt before landing so he wasn’t concerned. The wings however were steadily collecting a milky white veil over the black rubber boots wrapping the leading edge. Clear ice. It needed to be at least a half inch thick before inflating the boots to crack it off. Anything less would mold the ice into the shape of the ribbed bladders beneath, rendering them useless. He’d studied the literature, and he knew the theory. But nowhere had he read that you needed to test the boots on the ground before each and every flight into IMC! When the ice was eventually thick enough and he hit the switch – nothing happened! The ice stayed glued on, clinging to the boots like a mischievous gremlin. “Oh well,” he thought – the 421 was flying just fine so she could obviously cope with a little ice.

Sometime later he became aware of a strange vibration running through the airframe. Not a particularly high frequency, but it was definitely becoming a judder. Glancing at the airspeed indicator he sees he’s lost 20 of the 180 knots and it was steadily decreasing. Suddenly it occurs to him that maybe he’s feeling the pre-stall buffet! But at 160 knots, surely it can’t be! The adrenaline gushes through his veins. Quickly he requests a lower level from ATC. There wasn’t a moment to lose. The autopilot is starting to battle with the strange porpoising motion and he disconnects it – only to find the gates are now open and he’s riding a bucking bronco! (The autopilot had done a good job masking the symptoms of the ice, much like the recent Dash 8 crash in Buffalo NY.) They needed to get down fast! But there are mountains below! Glaring at the OAT Dave sees it’s still minus 18C outside. He needed to get down below Level 080 before the aircraft would even have a fighting chance of wrestling off its deadly parasite. The ice is building more rapidly as they descend into rain and its weight is clearly becoming a problem. Dave pushes the speed up to compensate. (Probably what saved them.) The poor passengers are by now wide eyed with fright and he tries to look calm and explain what he’s doing. As they approach the freezing level Dave sees the thick white rime on the windshield beginning to soften and flow and looks outside in time to see large opaque shards of ice sliding off from beneath his wings. He couldn’t believe how big they were! He told me they were like sections of clear glass window panes! This flight could easily have ended in disaster if he hadn’t disconnected the autopilot and descended when he did. Dave’s dramatic account convinced me never to put myself in the same position. I explained my reasoning to my friend. His kids took the bus.

The strangest crash of them all was when an airforce buddy disappeared in a Piper Seneca in October 1990. In 1979 Keith Page along with Jurgen Otte, Chris Louw and I, all served our National Service Basic Training together at the SAAF Gymnasium next to Swartkops Airforce Base. We all applied for pilot selection during this time and the three of them were accepted. My lousy eyesight saw me relegated as a Meteorologist Assistant for the duration of my National Service. It was a shattering disappointment knowing my dream of flying Mirages was over. (I did eventually get to fly one years later.) But providence had another plan for me and pursuing my ambition in the civilian arena was to prove far more successful.

Some eleven years later Keith decided he’d had enough of flying Mirages and was accepted to join SAA. He duly resigned from the SAAF but would have a few months unemployment before starting at SAA. The charter companies needed pilots so it was a perfect opportunity to pick up a little civilian flying experience. He completed his first multi-engine conversion onto the Seneca II and within a week was phoned for a charter. With four passengers he set off early one morning to spend the day in Richards Bay. It’s a curious phenomenon that every five or six years the weather in Natal turns extra nasty! And at five that afternoon poor ol’ Keith takes off back to Grand Central and flies straight into the worst conditions imaginable – and vanishes into thin air! (Robbie Burt Jnr will remember this accident well. We shared a commune at the time and he broke the news to us.) For weeks dozens of us searched high and low for Keith, but all to no avail. Eventually after a month the search was abandoned in frustration. My last sortie was up against the Drakensberg in gusty turbulent conditions, and at last light peering down into the shadows proved difficult. It was our last resort. We’d searched everywhere else, not really believing he could have strayed this far off track.

Six months later a group of hikers found his wreck lying at the bottom of Cathedral Peak – in the very area I’d tried to search so vainly that last day.

This occurred in pre-GPS days and speculation had it that he’d picked up ice and descended below the cloud only to find himself out of range from any Nav aids and thoroughly lost. Heading northwest towards where he believed Johannesburg lay he was forced back into the cloud by rising ground. Hoping to get within VHF range for a radar fix from Jan Smuts he’d continued climbing. At 9800 feet he impacted the cliff face and tumbled down the mountain to the base several thousand feet below – where he lay undiscovered for six months!

There were a lot of weird events during this search, which I won’t go into here, but some very interesting and plausible theories were examined. Chief of which was that the pitot-heat had offset his magnetic compass by at least 30 degrees! Aligning his DI to the fictitious reading of the compass was likely what caused him to be so far off track. (Not many G/A pilots know how severely the electric field from the pitot-heat can pull a magnetic compass off heading. This is because most IFR training in IMC takes place with the pitot-heat off! In IMC above the freezing level, that knowledge could be critical!

Keith’s accident was just one of those sad events that have no meaning and considering the antics I got away with, all I can say is, “there but for the Grace of God go I.”

Sadly only Jurgen Otte and I are left from the original gymnasium four. Chris Louw, highly decorated for his bravery on helicopters during the bush war, lost his battle with cancer at a distressingly young age. After leaving the SAAF Jurgen went on to a very successful career with SAA and Emirates and now flies an Airbus 318 for a Saudi prince in Dubai.

The author is a Senior A340 Captain with SAA and CEO of Flight Training College in George.

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