Saturday, April 21, 2012

Lift is Temporary; Gravity is Permanent

Yesterday about 2020Z, Cessna 631 Sierra and I were motoring along on a 270 heading at 8,000 feet MSL somewhere north of White Plains (KHPN) and east of the Hudson River. We were talking to New York Approach on 120.8 MHz. That's about when I heard an exchange involving an eastbound Bonanza – 1 Sierra Mike – at 7,000 feet (N.B. – all quotes from memory, some paraphrasing inevitable):
1SM: "Approach, Bonanza 1 Sierra Mike, we're going to need a vector to the nearest airport."

NY Approach: "What was that? 1 Sierra Mike, you need to go to an airport?"

1SM: "Yes, we're having some engine problems and we're going to need to land."

NY Approach: "OK, that'll be White Plains. 1 Sierra Mike, turn right to a heading of 240 and descend and maintain 3,000 feet. You can expect the visual to Runway 16 at White Plains."

1SM: "OK, right turn to 240, descend to 3,000, 1 Sierra Mike."
Am I the only one that has a couple of problems with that? Hold the thought while I continue here.

After a couple of minutes...

1SM: "New York, 1 Sierra Mike, can you tell me where the airport is?"

NY Approach: "The airport is about 9 miles at your 10 o'clock now."

1SM: "OK, we don't see it; I guess we want to try to stay a little higher here..."(sic)

NY Approach: "1 Sierra Mike, altitude your discretion, the airport is about 8 miles now at your 9 o'clock. Turn left to 180."

1 SM: "We're having trouble holding altitude here. I'm not sure we're going to make the field."
Here, courtesy of FlightAware.com is the ground track of 1 Sierra Mike, beginning with departure from Teterboro (KTEB):

My inference is that the controller had 1 Sierra Mike on a left base for Runway 16 at KHPN and planned to turn him onto the localizer somewhere around the usual intercept gate for IFR approaches. (As usual, click to enlarge. Bonanza 1SM is the blue track.) Unfortunately, 1 Sierra Mike was running out of altitude before that plan could be accomplished. Meanwhile, the riveting exchange continued on the frequency...

NY Approach: 1 Sierra Mike, say souls on board and, er..., fuel."

1SM: "It's the two of us on board and we've got one full tank and the other side is about half."

1SM: "Approach, 1 Sierra Mike is definitely not going to make the field. We're going to put it down out here. There's a field and a road over to the right."

NY Approach: "1 Sierra Mike, radar contact lost."
A minute or so later, an Emergency Location Transmitter (ELT) signal began on 121.5 MHz, the emergency frequency. 1 Sierra Mike was presumably on the ground, and had decelerated abruptly enough to trigger the ELT.

Again courtesy of FlightAware.com, here are the altitude and speed profiles for 1 Sierra Mike.

Quite soon thereafter N631S and I were handed off to the next sector, but I tuned the number two radio to 120.8 and kept monitoring. Soon, several aircraft, carefully separated by altitude, were looking for 1 Sierra Mike's location. One searcher posed a question:

Search Aircraft: "New York, what's the type aircraft and color?"

NY Approach: "It's a BE36...I guess we don't know the color."
After perhaps another five minutes, the controller said to one of the search aircraft, "Thanks for your help, you can continue. Somebody found them over there."

When I arrived at home in the DC area I quickly looked for news of the incident on-line and was rewarded with a brief article that referred to a "forced landing" and, more importantly, did not mention injuries or worse.

This, to me, is a beautiful picture. They may not get to use that airplane again, but it shows a controlled touchdown and a survivable event. The pilot, who had sounded very calm throughout, clearly kept his composure, chose a viable emergency field, and executed a good off-airport wheels-up landing.

This morning, I learned from updates to the news item, that the two on board were transported to the hospital with injuries judged to be not life-threatening. So the outcome, basically, was good. And that leaves open a question: Why am I troubled by this incident?

Let's start with a disclaimer: I'm not a qualified accident investigator. I am typically appalled by speculation in the aftermath of accidents. I guess I'm about to do that which usually annoys me. Well, here goes...

  • First, the pilot – who really did a great job throughout this incident – erred, in my view, by not using the E-word on the first call to approach after the engine went bad. His phraseology was ambivalent and the seriousness of the situation was not at all clear. It costs NOTHING! to say, "Bonanza 1 Sierra Mike is declaring an emergency due to loss of power." Doing so removes all doubt from the minds of the ATC people.
  • Second, the controller treated the situation like a normal approach into KHPN. He issued a descent to 3,000 feet (to get below KLGA arrivals?) and pointed the airplane toward the 16 localizer. The pilot didn't declare an emergency, and the controller didn't treat it as one. If the initial vector had been directly to the numbers at KHPN Runway 16, would 1 Sierra Mike have made it?
  • Third, the controller issued a descent to three thousand and the pilot knew his engine was in trouble. The best one word response would have been, "Unable!" Instead, he started down. With the engine questionable (or worse), altitude is your bank account. You don't give it up without a really good reason. It seems that the pilot ceded command authority to ATC...never a good idea.
  • Fourth, even as it became clear that an emergency had developed, the controller asked for "souls on board" (good!) and "fuel" (why?). In the moment, it would admittedly be hard to do the logical thing – ask for the color of the airplane that is about to be on the ground – but that just emphasizes the rote nature of the responses. Perhaps ATC needs a better training module for dealing with emergencies.
I would ask a favor from all who read this. Please don't think that I'm condemning the pilot or the controller in this incident. They both did well given the circumstances, and the people on the airplane will, it appears, be OK. But I believe there are lessons here. I've taken them aboard and I hope others will, as well.


Stephanie Belser said...

Frank, I sort of concur, but not wholly. Yes, I agree that he should have said either "I am declaring an emergency" or "mayday". But he was dealing with a situation where the controller really couldn't do a lot for him. He made an off-airport landing and he had the presence of mind to not lower the gear.

The airplane appears to be repairable and nobody was seriously hurt.

(And if Putnam County hadn't closed the Mahopac Airport, he might have had a place to land.)

Peter said...

I'm a controller at a VFR tower, also a CFI, and I've been trying to understand why so many pilots have so much difficulty declaring an emergency when an unusual situation comes up. Frank, you're absolutely right, there is *zero* penalty to the pilot to declaring an emergency -- no extra paperwork, no automatic fine. We, as controllers, just want to help you get on the ground safely. And believe me, we hate doing paperwork, too.

Based on your telling, the pilot in this emergency didn't give the controller a lot to work with. "Some engine problems" could mean just about anything -- a rough-running or hot cylinder? A voltage warning light? Or maybe just the oil access panel unsecured and flapping against the cowl in the wind? Unless you, as the pilot, tell us more about what's going on, it's hard for us to do much to help.

But start your transmission with your FULL callsign and "mayday" or "we're declaring an emergency," and you'll have the complete attention of me, the other controllers nearby and my supervisor. That's a lot of people that can help out, whether that means coordinating with Fire and Rescue, calling a controller who's a pilot back from break to help talk you through an engine-out checklist, etc. By the way, once an emergency is declared, either by the pilot or the controller, we're required to get a few basic pieces of information -- the nature of the emergency, souls on board and time, in minutes, of fuel remaining; that's why the controller asked the pilot those questions a few minutes into things. I'm assuming it took that long for the controller to realize that this was an emergency situation, since the pilot didn't give much indication of the problem he was having. (Incidentally, saying "one full tank and one half-full" doesn't help us. We need to know if you have enough fuel to make it the XX minutes of flying time to the closest airport.)

The internet tells me an A36 glides about 1.7NM for every 1,000 feet of altitude, so at best glide, this pilot should have made it about 12NM, maybe more if a few cylinders were still firing. Yet the track on Flight Aware makes it look like he only made it about 7 miles after the turn to the southwest. 12 miles and a heading direct HPN would have gotten him most of the way there. But again, if you don't tell the controller the problem you're having and that you need a vector directly to the airport, most controllers will assume you want vectors to the approach.

Frank Van Haste said...

Steph, Peter, thanks to both of you for sharing your thoughts and insights.

At the risk of repeating myself, I do NOT want to cast stones at these guys - they had to deal with a rapidly evolving, unexpected situation and in the end, some metal got bent and no one was badly hurt. So, they did OK.

That (re-)said, I think the incident really highlights the value of early, clear communication. Use the E-word, tell ATC what you need in unambiguous terms, don't be afraid to say "unable", as well.

In the case at hand, the delay in sorting out the communications led, I believe, to something less than the best available ending.



Eck! said...

There is also PAN, for those I'm not sure its an emergency but plan to handle it as one. However if you have a sick engine MAYDAY and fly direct is a plan.

However I see it as the controller trying to be helpful with a pilot that could have made it easier for both. Good news is minor injuries.
Bad news is the pilot is likely to have paper to deal with for the off airport incident.

I'm from the school that if it needs urgent attention, do so and if time permits say so. If your not getting what you want be clear in what you need.

I've set down a few times because I didn't like how things looked/felt and being on the ground has a perspective not available in the air. The other is I've had the fan stop a few times and first thing is; above all else fly the plane, and second is fly the D@&# plane! I've had that beaten into my head before I had 20 hours. That and emergency procedures of all sorts.
Being up on what to do if bad things happen makes it easier to fly and troubleshoot.

In the end while people on the ground can offer help the PIC with the emphasis on Command has to be the one that asserts control rather than fiddle futz down to the ground.


Greg said...

Hi Frank,

As a controller, I've seen more than a few instances where we (ATC) have had to declare an emergency for a pilot. The hesitancy to declare an emergency seems to be much more prevalent amongst the GA community than the airlines. I so wish that more pilots would make use of the valuable resource that is ATC during an emergency. That's what we're here for!

As far as this particular incident, I can't pass too much judgement on the actions of either the pilot or controller, having not witnessed it first hand. I can say from a controller's perspective that it seems the pilot could have been more clear as to the seriousness of the situation unfolding in that airplane. As Peter in the above comment said, "some engine problems" doesn't give us a lot to work with when trying to decide how to react.

The most important thing that I hope pilot readers of your blog take from this incident is to COMMUNICATE clearly and unambiguously with ATC when you are in trouble (of course aviate and navigate come first). We are here to help and have a lot of resources available to us to help pilots in these situations. Even with the aviate and navigate parts :)


Gary said...

Agree, not to cast any stones but my call would have been to declare an emergency and get the priotity handling and direct to the airport. I rather lose the altitude over the airport then come up short. At least they survived the off airport landing.