Airmanship at a distance

This is a sad story. But important to think about. For we are all our brother’s keeper. The news headline this weekend was ‘Flight school sued over death of student‘. Fox5 reported:

A 21-year-old’s dream of becoming a pilot was cut short when during flight school his plane came crashing down, killing him, according to a lawsuit filed Friday in Cobb County. The father of the young man filed that suit alleging the school was negligent by forgetting to refuel the plane.

“I don’t want another family to experience that kind of loss,” said Michael Hughes.

This was the reason Hughes said he filed the suit against the flight school, its parent company and the instructors for forgetting to refuel the Piper Tomahawk in which his son died.

“Devastating, I really don’t have any other words,” said Hughes.

Last October, Joseph Hughes was working to get his pilot license. He had about 13 hours under his belt and had already flown solo once for about an hour. October 8 flight would have been his second solo flight.

“He initially said he wasn’t going to be flying because the plane was down for maintenance. Then he got a call that it was OK to fly so he went down to get a couple of hours of flying and that’s what happened,” said Hughes.

According to the lawsuit, the fuel tanks on the plane Hughes was in were virtually empty. The last time the plane had been serviced, was three days earlier after someone had flown it for nearly five hours and never refueled it. The lawsuit states Hughes was climbing out of a touch-and-go maneuver when the engine quit due to fuel exhaustion.

“Of all the things you can anticipate, could happen, mechanical failure, wind, to hear it’s something as simple as gas,” said Hughes. “I don’t want all the paper work that was filed today. I don’t want his story to be lost in the pages, ultimately this is about my son, it’s not about anything else,” said Hughes.

The fatal crash happened on 8 October last year, and the NTSB details (report ERA16FA005) are in agreement with the recent news story. VFR. Second solo. No mechanical issues with PA 38 aircraft, other than the only fuel found was half a cup in the left tank.

PA-38 crash

After the last known fueling, the Tomahawk had flown 4.9 hours before the accident. It seems that the student pilot, with 13.5 hours of total flight experience and here on his second solo flight, lost engine power due to fuel exhaustion, and did not safely make an off-airport landing. The debris field suggests to me he impacted the ground at a steep angle.

Clearly starting the engine on the ramp without enough fuel for a couple of hours of flying was the point at which the pilot could have most easily changed the outcome. But this was only his second solo. I’m sure the instructor and the flight school feel terrible. And may now bear some legal liability.

The standard panel of the Piper Tomahawk has the fuel gauges quite prominent, in the center panel between the yokes:


The normal safety defenses here include:

  • Checking the fuel visually/physically in the tanks during preflight, using a finger or dipstick as required.
  • Checking the fuel gauges during preflight.
  • Checking the fuel gauges during engine start when called for on the checklist.
  • Checking the fuel gauges before takeoff.
  • Checking the fuel gauges before every landing.

And there’s many more. A flight school I rent from has a procedure that when you return from a flight, you leave the prop vertical. It signals that it’s not full tanks. When the fuel crew fills up the tanks they reset the prop to horizontal. Some places have a time sheet that includes a fuel log. It seems the accident operator did, but it wasn’t consulted by the student or instructor or whoever gave the student the keys. And for a second solo, when I was an instructor I’d fly with the student right before they went alone. And for several other flights after I’d preflight the plane myself before the student arrived. What other checks were missed here? Weather? Maintenance logs?

So in some ways it’s hard to see how this accident could ever happen. But then, if a student hadn’t had fuel awareness pointed into him/her yet (that’s cross-country knowledge?), if gauges were unreliable, if the planes has always been full before, if checklist understanding was weak, if if if.


The bigger question for us all is how much are we our brother’s keeper? When do we pull someone aside and help? I know I’ve been helped hundreds of times by others. But any action or word can also easily be seen as interference or insult. Powered controlled aviation was started by actual brothers. We all learn from each other. Airline safety has two pilots checking each other at its safety center. But what about ‘old Bob in his C172’ who you’ve seen do some unsafe shit? What about the young instructor who looks like he is rushing students? Are you helping? Are you right? Or just being an annoying old fool?

This is airmanship at a distance. And it’s hard.

Student pilot Micheal Hughes
Student pilot Micheal Hughes

11 thoughts on “Airmanship at a distance

  1. What a tragic event. While reading this, my mind instantly went to a paragraph from the 2nd meeting with Sam:

    “Sam munched from a bag of carrots, watching me preflight, but as he strolled out to the airplane he leaped up on the strut and checked the fuel. I think he saw me try to hide my feelings, for I know he had seen me check the fuel.
    “When flying, quietly and tactfully trust no one. Crosscheck each other. We’re a team: I will not let you down.”

    Hopefully, a somber reminder for all of us to heed this advice.

  2. He was excited and wanted to fly. He was negligent in his preflight. Probably didn’t drain the sump either. No telling what else might have been missed. Negligence on his part. He is pilot in command and his responsibility. Sad and sometimes things like that happen when you do not follow the checklist on preflight, inflight and landing.

  3. …so, he didn’t check gauges…. that’s unsat. I’m guessing he didn’t check the fuel for water, either…. he’d almost certainly have noticed the lack of pressure on outflow due to a virtually empty tank, surely?

    …in any case, the PA-28 checklist I pulled up online had at least -*9*- fuel related entries before leaving the runway…sampling, visual inspection, and gauges. You mean to say he didn’t even notice -*once*- that he had no fuel???

    I call shenanigans. Sad that he died, but the checklist is there for a reason.

    …and then for the flight school to be sued because of it? frivolous litigation such as that is exactly why GA is in such a ruinous state.

  4. Its easy to blame a low-time student pilot but the Flight School failed big time. How can a student be sent on a second solo without a dual check? Who authorised the flight? Its the responsibility of the Authorising instructor to check the serviceability of the aircraft – this includes sufficient fuel for the sortie. An accident is never one isolated omission or error but a ‘chain of errors’. The chain was there and nobody broke a link, Sad.

    1. Chira, you don’t understand how aviation works in a legal sense. A solo endorsement means that the student pilot is authorized to be Pilot In Command for solo flights. It is the legal responsibility of PIC to ensure that the plane is ready for flight and it is the PIC alone who is responsible for the outcome of the flight. What you say sounds like layman’s common sense, but aviation just doesn’t work that way. Soloing isn’t a little step where you are babied — it is a big push out of the nest and it is a sink or swim type of scenario. Sinking is a real risk and that’s one of the reasons why students can’t take passengers on solo flights.

      I feel really bad for this young man, his friends, and his family–but there is no way an instructor would sign him off for solo without having first taught him preflight procedures (which include fuel quality and quantity checks). This is tragic but the pilot was a fault.

      1. Hi Rick, Sure I don’t know the legal implications in the USA but with 22,000 hrs, 7000 Flight Instructional hours, both Military and Civil, I dont consider myself to be a ‘layman’ in aviation. Are you suggesting that since this young man did ONE solo flight, he can be considered a ‘Pilot-in- Command?’ If so then give him his license now.
        Of course this is not the case. He has just started his PIC status and needs guidance for another few hundred hours before he can be given a license. Those that guide him (Instructors, management, technicians) cannot assume that he has done all his checks correctly (including fuel quantity). Do we know if he has been taught how to check Fuel quantity correctly? Maybe the aircraft was always fuelled up when he flew with an instructor so he got used to having sufficient fuel for the mission. To cut the long story short, the Flight School has a huge responsibility which cannot be ignored. The inquiry should concentrate on those areas and not put the blame on the dead pilot – a very convenient way that many institutions use to get out of their responsibility.

  5. I’m a Cobb County resident who knows the school, the instructors, and I have even flown 4313E. I may have even met the pilot on the ramp one day, but I am not certain. By all accounts he was a fine young man. When I heard what happened, it was like a punch in the gut. I just heard about this suit today.

    I understand the need for the family to have closure, and the urge to lash out against the people and company that they perceive caused them this grievous harm. I also know the named defendants to be caring and competent professionals. I have flown with both of them extensively. Admittedly, that was in the context of a BFR and instrument work so I never was run through their pre-solo protocols.

    I have no special or specific knowledge of the incident beyond what is known publicly. That being said, it is apparent to me that there were many points along the accident chain where this could have, and should have been averted.

    I’m not a lawyer nor a legal expert, so I don’t know where that final civil liability finally lies. I assume a jury generally unfamiliar with the aviation law and custom will ultimately be called upon to make emotionally impactful decisions that will drive headlines. Whoever takes the blame will suffer emotionally and possibly financially. This is just a tragic situation with no winners, all losers.

    I hope that it serves as a reminder to each of us, whether PIC or CFI, that we have a responsibility to never be complacent about operating machines that somehow magically suspend us above the earth moving at incredible velocities beyond the practical imagination of mankind before the 20th century. We joust with death each and every time we summon the courage to shout “Clear!”. The odds are against us; we must control what odds we can.

    1. Hello Steve,

      Thanks for taking the time to share your insights, a closeness to the operation that the rest of us don’t have. I don’t know where the civil liability lies either. But agree this is a reminder to us all about complacency, procedures, teaching, speaking up, back-ups, assumptions, emergency drills, and more.

      I love the last few lines. Joust with death we do. Controls what odds we can we must.

  6. Such a heartbreaking story. I understand the family’s desire to seek some kind of retribution– not because they’re justified, but because they probably feel taking action is the only proper response–reason and logic are often clouded through the fog of grief. Hopefully the paperwork, and the legal protections that are built into the system will protect the flight school and the instructor– who is no-doubt devastated as well.

    That being said, I don’t know one aviator who hasn’t rushed through a scan– muscle memory turning the process into routine, rather than an actual check. I’m a military aviator, and I’ve caught myself, and many others doing this– particularly when the cockpit gets task saturated. We are fortunate in that we have a crew dedicated to backing up our call-outs, as well as the built-in redundancy of two pilots to ensure mistakes are not made.

    My first several fixed wing solos were over 9 years ago– but I do recall being fairly overwhelmed the first few times.

    No excuses–as so eloquently stated above– we do indeed take on more risk than most, every time we strap into these aircraft– and mistakes are how we learn. Unfortunately for this student– his mistake was lethal.

    1. Agree Jessie. Especially your thoughts, “We are fortunate in that we have a crew dedicated to backing up our call-outs, as well as the built-in redundancy of two pilots to ensure mistakes are not made.”

      Airline ops are the same way. A student pilot on his or her second solo is very much alone. That’s kinda the point. But as an instructor I used to preflight the plane before that level of student arrived on the ramp, check the fuel, check the weather, check the notams. We have to look after each other.

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