By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091
This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the May 2023 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
By all accounts, it was nearing sunset. Fog was just starting to roll across the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland, on a November evening in 2022. The Mooney M20J was nearing the end of its flight from White Plains, New York, with a pilot and one passenger. It approached from the north. What was about to unfold was an electrified high-wire spectacle that nobody had planned but would draw passersby and rescuers from near and far.
The scene was eerie — something right out of our worst flying nightmares. The Mooney hung seemingly by its propeller and dangling a hundred feet in the air. It was tangled in the tower-carrying high-tension wires. The dim light of a cellphone glowed as the pilot called in the accident, reassuring the 911 operator that he and his passenger were alive. Although they were seemingly safe for the moment, the situation was dire.
Such an accident falls into the category of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), an unintentional collision with terrain (such as the ground, a mountain, a body of water, or an obstacle) while an aircraft is under positive control.
According to the FAA, CFIT accidents occur at the rate of about 40 per year. We might expect that most of them occur when visibility obscures terrain at night or in the clouds. But statistics defy our reasoning. Roughly 75 percent of CFIT accidents occur during daylight hours, and only 50 percent occur in instrument meteorological conditions. The part that isn’t surprising is that roughly 50 percent of CFIT accidents result in fatalities.
The FAA suggests that, in most cases, the pilot is unaware of the impending doom until it is too late. Perhaps the best we can do is understand the environments conducive to CFIT and work to avoid the risk factors.
Maintaining situational awareness — particularly with respect to terrain and obstacles — is critical to avoiding CFIT accidents. Any time we lose certainty with respect to our position, we wander into gray territory. When visibility decreases, or we gradually and unwittingly transition from VFR to IMC, we could put ourselves and others in danger.
One way pilots find themselves in such a situation is when attempting to squeeze between a cloud deck and the underlying terrain. As the slot narrows, or the ceiling becomes less defined, pilots may think they are still on top of the situation. In reality, it is rising up to meet them.
When in the clouds, it’s imperative to know where we are with respect to terrain and obstacles. We may be flying blind, but we should not be flying blindly. Following an ATC-issued clearance and published instrument procedures is essential for maintaining the required clearance from terrain and obstacles. Any time we deviate from the rules, we put ourselves at considerable risk.
At night we can be at greater risk of losing our situational awareness since terrain and obstacles can be difficult or impossible to see. Clouds can be invisible as well, so we might find ourselves entering IMC without realizing it. For this reason, we need to have a good understanding of forecast conditions, give ourselves a healthy margin below the forecast clouds and ceilings, and stay tuned for pilot reports that may warn of changing conditions.
A good rule for day and night flying is to set a minimum altitude for a flight by checking the maximum elevation figures printed in large blue type on our sectional charts. (Note that the large numeral is for thousands of feet and the smaller for hundreds.) We can readily determine a safe cruise altitude for a route of flight by adding a safety margin to those figures.
Wind Shear and Thunderstorms
Tangling with convective activity is another scenario that can put us at risk for a CFIT accident.
We all know that the updrafts and downdrafts in a thunderstorm can easily exceed our aircraft’s performance capability, but let’s not forget that, even when in the clear, we can encounter gust fronts, wind shear, and microbursts that represent extreme danger on departure or arrival to the airport.
A good rule is to remain at least 10 miles from thunderstorm cells, and at least 20 miles if the storm is severe. While weather radar may show us where the precipitation is (or recently was), it does not show us what’s going on with the winds. And keep in mind that the display we see for uploaded weather radar may be 20 minutes old or more!
One environment that can add additional CFIT challenges is mountainous terrain. Any time we tangle with steep terrain, carved granite, towering elevations, and battering winds, it is easy to overestimate our aircraft’s performance.
What is often overlooked is how quickly high-density altitude saps an aircraft’s performance. Engine power is reduced roughly 3 percent for every 1,000 feet of density altitude for a normally aspirated (nonturbocharged) engine.
Combined with the increased true airspeed (about 2 percent for every 1,000 feet above sea level) that comes with higher density altitude, the aircraft’s climb angle can be significantly reduced, making it impossible to outclimb rising terrain, avoid obstacles, or overcome downdrafts.
Numerous tips and procedures are unique to mountain flying — all oriented toward avoiding an unplanned collision with terrain. Among those, pilots are warned to always be in a position to make an immediate turn toward lower terrain, and to approach ridges at an angle to decrease the turn needed to escape rising terrain.
A good practice is to learn to visualize the wind as water flowing over a rocky stream bed. This can help us visualize where up- and downdrafts and turbulence may exist. Pilots are also warned to never fly up a canyon. Canyons should be flown only from higher elevation to lower elevation, and only after one is well familiar with the terrain, including canyon widths and obstacles such as bridges and wires. Specialized instruction in mountain flying is a must before venturing out into higher terrain.
Whenever we’re at low altitude, we are at a higher risk for colliding with terrain and obstacles. Intentional buzzing and other low-altitude antics put us squarely in the danger zone, with little room for error or to deal with unanticipated problems. When we consider how much altitude it can take to recover from a stall, loss of control situation, or distraction, we begin to realize the importance of always maintaining a healthy buffer.
Of course, the one time we need to surrender our safety cushion of altitude is when we’re in the pattern for takeoff or landing. At this point, we must be on our toes and situationally aware.
Perhaps that’s what went awry for the Mooney pilot when his flight came to an abrupt end just short of his destination. In phone records released soon after the accident, the pilot revealed that he had unintentionally descended below minimums as he made his approach to Runway 14. That much was clear from the predicament that ensued.
It’s also clear that he and his passenger are extremely fortunate. They somehow beat the odds and survived to tell the tale.
Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 40 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.