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Flying In Smoke: Risk vs Reward

Roy Evans II  | Published on 9/2/2021
SMOKE:  Risk vs Reward, by Roy Evans II, President, Utah Back Country Pilots Association


smoke


I’ve been writing in my journal about the balance between risk and reward and having read the harrowing tale of three people who were recently killed flying into a canyon minutes from their home airport, the struggle to find the balance between the two is even more on my mind. Airplane accidents in today’s likes and comments-driven world have now become source material for so-called aviation experts to spin off of their personal views on what they think happened. We’ll never get rid of Monday-morning quarterbacking aircraft accidents, I just never thought I’d live in a world where people profit off of it.

The above image is from a flight I recently completed, repositioning the Cub home from an adventure into two new states, Montana and Wyoming. Short of editing the prop blur out of the image, the reduced visibility and lack of discernible horizon were conditions that I had to endure for the second day of my trek home. Starting in Blackfoot, Idaho, I woke up to ATIS, ASOS, and AWOS reports along my flight reporting between four to five miles of visibility in smoke. Having flown the intended route previously in much more clear conditions, I carefully re-reviewed the route for terrain and obstructions, developed what I call my fifteen minute plans, and set course for the two hour flight back to my new home airport, South Valley Regional.

These fifteen minute plans are gifts from my private pilot instructor, who taught me a method to not only keep updating those pesky cross country logs, but to keep a regular pattern of cross-checking instruments, position, and what my Plan B, C, and Ds were. In reality, these cross-checks come at varying intervals that are dependent on the weather, terrain, or anything that can influence the continuation of the flight. Leapfrogging from one potential off-airport landing site to the next, my smoke-filled journey back home was an example of this weighing the risk of continuing the flight versus the reward of completing the flight.
There was no requirement for me to takeoff, and in the last 30 plus years of flying, I have yet to find one compelling reason that would force me to takeoff without my concurrence. I presume the same could have been said for the accident flight that occurred a day after my flight back home, however, hearing that the flight was a gift from a wife to her husband on their anniversary, I could see the risk versus reward debate sliding one way over the other.

Risk mitigation is something the airlines have been instilling into their training programs for many years. At most operators, a thorough review of the threats that can have an influence in the successful completion of the flight are reviewed by both pilots, and mitigation strategies are put into place to offset the risk factors. If these threats cannot be mitigated, then alternative courses of action are taken. Sometimes that may mean requesting a different runway or approach, adding more contingency fuel, or canceling the flight altogether. Carrying a similar approach to the safe operation of airplanes into my personal flying, my flight home was reviewed by not only myself but a few close trusted friends to make sure that I wasn’t overshadowing the risks involved for the reward of being home.

Discussing the shortcomings of others is not a comfortable conversation, and even while typing this out it’s a little outside my wheelhouse. However, reading reports of pilots flying airplanes into the terrain is even more uncomfortable. Having flown in the same conditions less than a day prior to the accident, the thought of a sightseeing flight was lost before me. Truth be told, my flight home was not only a strain on me physically, but mentally. I could only imagine adding the pressure of impressing friends and family and doing all this late in the afternoon on a smoke-filled day. Sadly, we don’t have to imagine that anymore, as this 182 joins a growing list of CFIT fatalities that have plagued general aviation in Utah, a majority of them appearing to be cases where airplanes tried to out-climb terrain and tragically lost.

The why on this particular accident continues to bounce around my mind. Reports that the aircraft appeared to impact the terrain in a near-vertical descent make the ever-popular stall-spin hypothesis gain traction, but the why is my focus. Two competent pilots, one commercially rated, and one, an active flight instructor, makes me think of the phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen” because surely two competent pilots wouldn’t have let reduced visibility turn an instrument-capable aircraft into a spatial disorientation nightmare? Surely two pilots in one cockpit make for better decision making? Seems to be working for the airlines.
We fly because it releases us from the tyranny of petty things. Because it’s our source of income. Because there’s nothing like it out there in the world. We accept the risks and weigh them against the rewards as we turn fuel into noise. We push ourselves and our specie beyond its design, and being cognizant of the fallibility of our kind, we place safeguards, checks and balances, and experience in harms way to protect us. While regulatory agencies and flight schools emphasize scenario-based training into their curricula, there’s hardly a module where a perfectly good airplane is placed in a precarious position much like the last CFIT accidents in our state, because students, instructors, and regulators agree…there’s no reason for a pilot to put an airplane there.

Yet these sad stories continue to be written.

We can make more safeguards, we can add more checks and balances, and we can add to our own experience. While we hope to learn the whole story on accidents like these, the reality of the situation is that we will never know the why for a surety. Before we throw in the towel, however, we have an opportunity as a community to help curb these accidents. If you’re not actively engaged in a mentor / mentee relationship, seek one out, and magnify that relationship. A Flight Review is quite literally the bare minimum, and should never be relied upon to establish an acceptable level of competency and currency. If a good pilot is always learning, what is it that we are learning? If we are not engaged in honing our skills, then is it any wonder that we continue to repeat the past?

As we weigh the risk versus the reward for our next flight, my hope is that as confident as we are to push the plane out of the hangar, complete the necessary preflight inspections, and thoughtfully plan our flights, we are equally confident in pushing the plane back in the hangar, closing those doors, driving home knowing there will always be a better day for us to fly, and that no reward is worth the ultimate risk.

Roy Evans II is the current President of the Utah Back Country Pilots Association, an active airline pilot for a major airline and the owner of a gorgeous Piper PA-11 that he explores the back country with.  Follow Roy's adventures on Facebook.