I am a lawyer and a former captain for a major airline. I flew domestic and international routes for over twenty five years. A while back a lawyer I know, who is also a private pilot, invited me to fly with him on a short trip to the mid California coast and back. He is a nice guy, a very good lawyer and is also licensed as a pilot to fly in instrument weather conditions. The way I saw him conduct the flight, however, made me very concerned that he was a crash waiting to happen.
We took off in clear weather and proceeded over the Central California valley towards Monterrey, California. As I looked far ahead I could see the coastal fog just over the hills outside Monterrey. I asked him what he was going to do about Monterrey. He told me that he was going to wait to get closer to Monterrey before asking air traffic control what the weather was in Monterrey. At that point I started to get concerned because I could see the fog and knew that a low visibility approach in fog might be necessary.
As an airline captain facing those conditions, I would have been reviewing our instrument approach maps, double checking our fuel situation and coordinating how we would conduct the approach. This pilot was obviously not thinking about any of that.
As we got closer I heard a corporate aircraft on the radio as he was attempting the instrument approach at Monterrey. I heard the corporate pilot tell air traffic control that he had reached the minimum altitude on the approach, did not have the runway at Monterrey in sight and was executing a missed approach.
Air traffic control then advised us that we would be cleared to a nearby inland airport where the fog was less heavy so we went to an airport where the weather was much better and landed. That, however, was not the end of my thrills for the day.
As we made our return flight to Southern California I could see that the Los Angeles basin was covered in a marine layer of fog with no breaks in the clouds and no openings in the clouds. As this pilot started to descend I noticed that he had not even gotten his approach landing charts out of the navigation charts book. I finally asked him if he intended to get clearance from air traffic control for an instrument approach for landing. He said “Good idea. Go ahead and get me a clearance for an instrument approach to the airport.”
I got the charts out, called air traffic control and got us an instrument approach clearance. Suddenly he said, “I see a hole”.
He then dove the plane down through a small opening in the clouds. We popped out of the clouds under the overcast into a sea of lights from the homes below us. If there had been any other planes climbing out through that hole we could have run right into them.
In addition to that, we were then flying around just under the clouds trying to find the airport, which he eventually did.
After the flight I said thank you for the ride and decided not to ever fly with him again. When I heard his next story I was glad that I made that decision.
This lawyer pilot called me recently and told me what had happened on a flight he had just made. He had taken off in instrument conditions with a friend of his riding with him. As he climbed up through the clouds his airplane electrical system had a short and he had a complete electrical failure. The engine was running but he had just lost all of his electrical power and he was in the clouds flying on instruments. All he had left for electrical power was his aircraft battery.
The battery gave him power for his instruments so he could climb through the clouds until the airplane was on top of the clouds. After he got there he could see all around him but the ground was covered with clouds for miles all around. He would have to make an instrument approach on just battery power to land safely.
He called air traffic control, declared an emergency and requested an instrument clearance back to the field he had just taken off from. Air traffic control gave him the clearance he wanted but there was one problem His talking on the radio with battery power used up the battery and caused it to go dead.
When he later told me this story I immediately said “If the battery went dead how did you think you were going to make an instrument approach to land with no battery power to run your instruments?” His response was “You thought about that a lot faster than I did. I didn’t think about that until after I started down into the clouds on the instrument approach.”
What he apparently did at that point, was to pull out a small hand held GPS he had and use it to figure out where he thought the airport might be. Then he just went ahead and descended through the clouds with no instrument guidance. He and his passenger made it through successfully but it certainly is not a ride I would have wanted to be on.
I am afraid that some general aviation pilots, who don’t take flight preparation and flight discipline seriously, conduct their flights in this manner. It certainly would never be done that way by an airline trained pilot or by most responsible general aviation pilots.
I like this pilot a lot and enjoy being around him. I have just decided, however, that I don’t want to be in an airplane he is flying. He might survive in the future but I believe that his style of flying may eventually result in an airplane crash with people dying. I have decided not to be one of them.
If you have an airplane crash case you would like to discuss please call John Burns at 949-406-7000 or e mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. There is no charge for an initial consultation.