It was a dark and humid mid-October night in northwest Arkansas. A low-pressure system was straddling the state, immersing the region in moist, dense air. Numerous rain showers had moved east leaving behind a low raggedy cumulostratus cloud deck that evening.
My husband and I had just finished dinner when we heard the growl of a single Lycoming engine and the sound of a prop set at high-pitch. Living under the approach and departure corridor of the Rogers, Arkansas airport, we are accustomed to hearing aircraft fly over daily. But tonight? A single-engine piston aircraft flying in these conditions after dark? Being weather geeks and pilots, we are both habitually attuned to changing weather conditions. We reached for our phones to look at the current METAR:
KROG 192355Z AUTO 31005KT 10SM OVC004 11/10 A3006 RMK T01100100
Okay, not bad. So why was this aircraft going missed on the ILS Rwy 20? He should have been able to land given the current ceiling. Next, we pulled up FlightAware and saw that the pilot of a Cessna 182 had departed Branson West Municipal Airport (KFWB) in Missouri, an uncontrolled field some 40 nm to the northeast. Upon shooting the missed approach at KROG, it appeared the pilot was headed back to KFWB.
The METAR at KFWB looked worse and was deteriorating:
KFWB 192315Z AUTO 00000KT 1 1/4SM BR OVC002 11/11 A3007 RMK AO2
KFWB 192335Z AUTO 00000KT 3/4SM BR OVC002 11/11 A3007 RMK AO2 LTG DSNT E
KFWB 200035Z AUTO 00000KT 1/4SM FG OVC002 11/11 A3008 RMK AO2
Looking at the TAF’s the weather was well-forecasted:
TAF KROG 192320Z 2000/2024 25008KT P6SM OVC006
The closest TAF from his departure airport was Branson (KBBG), which was forecasting calm winds and an overcast ceiling of 200 feet:
TAF KBBG 192328Z 2000/2024 00000KT P6SM BKN004 OVC020
Not only was it dark and the weather not good, the entire route is located in inhospitable terrain amidst the Ozark Mountains and near several lakes.
We continued to track the aircraft as it seemed to be setting up for the RNAV 03 at Branson West. The aircraft made a turn toward the initial approach fix EDJON and then appeared to begin its descent. Then, just outside the final approach fix, the plane started an inexplicable left turn. It appeared to be circling back toward the initial approach fix. The plane wasn’t flying the published hold, as that procedure is depicted outside of the IAF and on the southeast side of the final approach course. This pilot was turning the opposite way INSIDE the IAF.
We continued to watch as the plane once again lined up on the final approach course, crossed the FAF, and eventually disappearing from FlightAware. Considering the weather conditions and the peculiar flight path, we were puzzled and alarmed about the fate of the aircraft. A call to Razorback Approach, which provides ATC services for the area, confirmed the aircraft made it safely on the ground.
After giving a big sigh of relief, we couldn’t help but get a little incensed. Why would a pilot undertake an obvious training flight in a single-engine piston, after dark, in conditions near or at approach minimums? And what was up with that non-standard turn at or below the MSA for the approach?
Was it legal? Yes. Was it smart? I contend no.
Performing as PIC of an aircraft is a constant balance of risk evaluation and mitigation. It is impossible to remove all risk – only staying on terra firma will assure that. Thus, no form of risk management is perfect. But we can apply good judgment to remove the low-hanging fruit that represents risk threats that can be easily mitigated. In my opinion, this pilot stacked up a considerable number of unnecessary and needless risks for a flight with limited training value. From our viewpoint, the risk did not seem commensurate with the reward. Apparently the pilot weighed it differently.
My husband and I have a pact that we won’t fly a single-engine piston in IFR at night. Could we? Of course, but we won’t. For us, the risk is not proportionate to the reward, no matter how alluring that reward might be. Losing our single source of thrust in the dark and in clouds gives us fewer options to prevent a bad outcome and presents a risk that far outweighs any benefit.
Another unbendable rule is always have an out. It is a conscious effort to ensure there is at least one course of action toward a safe outcome should things go south. For example:
You’re in a single-engine turboprop at FL190 and have an engine failure. What’s your out?
Departing a mountainous airport, you’ve been de-iced with Type 1 fluid and you’re number 3 for the runway with everyone awaiting ATC clearance. You’re now five minutes from your de-ice hold-over time expiring. What’s your out?
You are approaching a frontal system with fast-developing convection. What’s your out?
You’re shooting an approach to an uncontrolled field with the weather at minimums and at night. What’s your out?
Flying is all about evaluating and mitigating risks – knowing that eliminating all risks isn’t necessarily unattainable. We also each have a different approach to the risk-reward analysis. But we have the responsibility to those who fly with us to do all we can to tip odds in our favor as much as possible.
As for our Cessna 182 pilot flying that fateful October night, we don’t know how he or she viewed the risks. If training was the goal, could there have been a less risky opportunity to gain the experience desired that would have lowered the risk meter? Managing risk is a personal exercise where your experience, judgment, and training influence your decisions in the cockpit. But it all starts with naming, evaluating, and planning for the threats to safety – while you are still on the ground and well before the engine start.
Stay hungry for safety.