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.
“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.
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.