Monday, January 05, 2009

Bump in the Night

At several of the holiday parties I attended, the topic of a recent small plane accident came up. Small planes crashing usually don't make too much news unless someone on board was famous (such as JFK Jr. or Steve Fossett) or the crash site was particularly spectacular and lives were lost on the ground. The crash I was being asked about seemed intriguing to non-pilots because the accident claimed the life of Michael Connell, who was scheduled to testify in an investigation regarding alleged voter fraud in Ohio. Adding to the interest were reports that Mr. Connell had cancelled some previous flights due to mechanical issues and an acquaintance of his seemed concerned that Mr. Connell's plane might have be sabotaged in order to silence him.

Non-pilots' imaginations might run wild at times like these, but most pilots don't like to speculate on the cause of a crash when little information is available. When I was first asked my opinion, the FAA had not even issued a preliminary accident report. So I listened to what people had heard and read. Based on that scant information, I tried to give an educated guess about the pilot, his aircraft, his mission, and the weather. All I knew initially was that the plane crashed somewhere Akron, Ohio, that it was a single-engine aircraft, that Connell was the sole occupant, and the aircraft crashed a few miles from the Akron-Canton Regional Airport, in a residential neighborhood. One news report quoted someone as saying that Connell was a "very experienced" pilot.

The prudent response to questions about an aircraft accident is to focus on the facts, but few were available. Even so, I opined that sabotage seemed unlikely, since the aircraft crashed at the end of a flight rather than the beginning. Another possibility suggested, suicide by airplane, seemed unlikely since the plane crashed during an instrument approach. Who would go to all that trouble if they were just planning to intentionally fly their plane into the ground or the side of a mountain? My answer at the time was that the likely cause for these sorts of accidents usually turned out to be fuel exhaustion or the pilot losing control of the aircraft for some reason. Sabotage, however intriguing, was wild speculation.

A preliminary NTSB report has now been released for this accident and the factors in this accident that are beginning to emerge could prove enlightening for other GA pilots.

45 year old Michael Connell held a private pilot Airplane Single-Engine Land certificate with Instrument Airplane privileges. His third class medical certificate was issued in October of 2007 and at that time he reported 510 hours of flight time. About a year later, one would assume that Connell probably had at least 600 hours at the time of the accident and this would have made him "somewhat experienced" in my book. As an instrument pilot, it seems unlikely that he had logged more than 100 hours of instrument time and probably little of that as pilot-in-command. According to FlightAware, the accident aircraft (presumably piloted by Connell) had flown at least 13 times in the four months preceding the crash and that would lead me to believe that Connell knew his aircraft fairly well.

The accident aircraft was a 1998 Piper Saratoga II, high-performance turbo-charged single-engine piston aircraft with a retractable landing gear. The internet being what it is, you can find photos of the accident aircraft when it was posted for sale in April of 2003. At that time, the aircraft reported 1055 hours on the engine and airframe since new. Also at that time, the aircraft was equipped with Garmin 530 and 430 GPS receivers, an autopilot with flight director, and a slaved HSI. The plane had a full set of co-pilot instruments but it did not appear to be equipped for, nor certified for, flight into known icing conditions.

The crash occurred in night meteorological conditions at the completion of a flight that originated at College Park Airport in Maryland. According to FlightAware, the aircraft (presumably piloted by Connell) had made flights between these two airports many times in the previous months. Even so, a single-pilot night IMC flight is inherently risky for a relatively low-time pilot and when things go wrong in these conditions, statistics show the results are very likely to be fatal.

According to the NTSB report, Connell was vectored to intercept the ILS RWY 23 localizer two miles from the outer marker and this is where things started to unravel. The controller noticed the aircraft was "well left of the localizer" and offered to vector him back to try again. Connell reportedly said he was correcting and that indicated he wanted to press on. The NTSB report doesn't mention a handoff to the Akron Tower, but at 2.5 miles from the airport, about halfway between the final approach fix and the runway threshold, Connell asked permission to perform a 360 degree turn.

A request for a 360 degree turn for aircraft on an ILS approach and inside the final approach fix is very odd, to say the least. At this point, the Akron surface weather reported 9 miles of visibility, but a broken ceiling of 500 feet and an overcast ceiling at 1000 feet. The controller (presumably the Akron Tower) instructed Connell to climb and maintain 3000 feet and I'd imagine the controller's intent was to hand him back to the approach controller. The controller asked Connell for his current heading, and the response was "due north and climbing" and he then declared an emergency. The impact occurred shortly thereafter.

A witness on the ground reported seeing "two bright lights coming almost nose first toward the ground with the engine 'roaring.'" If accurate, the nose-down attitude would indicate a loss of control due, possibly due to pilot disorientation. But icing may have been an factor, too. Earlier Connell had asked ATC if there were any pilot reports for icing. Unfortunately, there weren't any, but clearly the pilot was aware that ice could become a factor. Even if you have experience with icing encounters, seeing and appraising ice accumulation is quite difficult on an aircraft that is not equipped for known icing conditions. Seeing trace ice accumulating on black de-ice boots in the dark is difficult enough and ice just doesn't show up very well on a wing painted white.

The weather at Akron was bad and rapidly getting worse. In the fifteen minutes between 17:35 and 17:51, the ceiling dropped by 200 feet and the visibility dropped by a mile. By 18:09, 16 minutes after the crash, the visibility dropped to 2.5 miles and the ceiling dipped another 100 feet to overcast at 400 feet. The temperature and dewpoint were -1 degree C. With visible moisture present, airframe icing was to be expected. If the aircraft was accumulating ice, that would explain why the pilot tried to salvage what appears to have been a destabilized approach.

Examination of the aircraft crash site revealed that the propeller had separated, but indicated bending consistent with the engine generating power at the time of impact. The flight controls exhibited no anomalies and the landing gear was extended.

Other details that are eventually released in these sorts of accidents include toxicology reports on the pilot and a summary of radar data. But as of this writing, claims of sabotoge seem unsubstantiated by the facts. What seems apparent is that a single-pilot, night IMC flight by a relatively low-time pilot started to unravel, the pilot pressed on, and the results were tragic.


Still Wondering said...

I've been waiting for a pilot's eye view of this - thanks for doing the research.

Remaining question: Is it common enough that a pilot approaching his home airport equipped with
functioning Garmin 530 and 430 GPS receivers, an autopilot with flight director, and a slaved HSI
will be so far off the localizer when he's 5nm out?

Granted we don't know the aircraft still had such aids, but assuming it's all there, what's your take?
Could he have been surprised to hear he was so far off, and then asked for the 360 in order to confirm one or more of his instruments operational?

John said...

It's hard to know at this point. The surface winds were out of the North and increased as the night wore on. The approach is to the SW, so he could have drifted off course due to the winds aloft and inadequate correction. He might have loaded the wrong approach in the GPS, or forgot to activate the localizer frequency, or got distracted by the weather.

There are dozens of possible explanations ...

Just facts said...

Connell's plane was equipped with inadvertent icing protection (weeping glycol) which isn't rated for flying in icing, but considering the weather and the similar small planes landing at Akron a few minutes later, it would seem to rule out icing.

What is probably the biggest factor is get-home-itis. We know he postponed his flight a few hours at the MD airport. We also know he was late for a work Christmas party and everyone was expecting him.

Flightaware has his last location just about at the outer mark but slightly left, probably outside the localizer. The confusing thing is that he radioed he was headed north, but maybe he was completing a sharp left turn and then ended up headed into the ground.

morefacts said...

Also, Connell landed at KCAK almost 30 times in the last 18 months. Half of his landings at Akron were after 7pm using ILS.

Would a dozen ILS approaches in the last year make you reasonably experienced enough?

John said...

Just Facts,

I was not aware that his aircraft had a TKS-style system. It is not listed as a feature in the previously-mentioned ad when the plane was up for sale.

Having a TSK system installed would certainly have helped, assuming the reservoir contained enough de-ice fluid and the pilot remembered to turn the system on.

It's hard to tell the aircraft's path in the final moments from FlightAware, but the NTSB should eventually be able to provide more details.

More Facts,

Twelve ILS approaches in 18 months to the same airport sounds like a lot, but the MINIMUM required to maintain currency is 6 approaches (and holding) every 6 months.

Maintaining instrument proficiency is different from maintaining currency. The pilot certainly was flying regularly (three or more times a month). Still, requesting a 360 degree turn on an ILS final approach course at night is highly unusual and certainly does not fit the criteria for a stabilized approach.

Regularly arriving after 7pm does not mean the pilot was always flying at night. That would depend on the time of year and his exact arrival time. It does seem likely that the pilot had been awake for more than 10 hours.

As you point out, hazardous attitudes about the flight could have definitely played a part in the accident, along with fatigue and stress.

The bottom line is that flying the required number of approaches every six months and having a well-equipped aircraft are only part of the overall safety picture. Judgement and decision-making are critical.

A good motto for instrument pilots to remember is "When an instrument approach goes bad, go missed."

Still Wondering said...

Pilot's last report "climbing heading north" squares with the crash site at 2 miles N-NE of the airport ("Just facts" need not be confused nor guessing sharp left turn).

Doesn't wreckage heading 120 (off an original controlled North hdg) indicate possible decreasing radius fall after stall? Gear down might have slowed him up when he turned into the wind? Wreckage seems too spread out for a dead stall.

As for the why of the 360, I'm guessing he was around 1000 and had broken through the ceiling and gave up his IFR (without closing it). He knew exactly where he was (city lights, hometown), and wanted the 360 for a VFR final from pattern altitude. That means he was making the turn without permission. Of course, he might have just departed his blown final in order to take a short cut to a new vector for the ILS back at 3200.

Since he was asked by tower to give an icing PIREP, it's safe to assume the icing would have been reported once he noticed it.

There, now you know what it means when they say that a little knowledge (mine) is a dangerous thing. :)

But seriously (I am not a pilot but have worked many years at a flight training school), thanks for the conversation.

Ron said...

I've flown the new Saratogas quite a bit, and they are not the stellar performer one might expect, even with the turbocharger. The aircraft has gained a lot of weight. In fact, the airplane I fly is so heavy that with two normal sized people on board, you're at max gross with the tanks full.

Add some ice, night time conditions, solid IMC, and it gets kind of dicey.

As for the advanced avionics in the aircraft, they only work as well as the guy who is programming them. I've seen countless pilots make mistakes in that department while training to fly single-pilot IFR.