Experience Versus Risk: Accidents Involve High-Time Pilots

Credit: National Transportation Safety Board

The accepted wisdom about pilot experience is the more flying time, the better. We learn the hazards, we get wiser, and we make better judgments.

Is it always true? Three accident reports recently released by the NTSB cast doubt on that premise.

The three pilots in these cases were all high-time pilots, and they all died in the accidents. The circumstances and contributing factors of the cases differed, but the issue common to all was that each pilot’s high experience was not enough to forestall the accident.

The first of these took place on Dec. 26, 2019. An Airbus AS350 B2 helicopter flying an air tour crashed near Kekaha, Hawaii, and the NTSB conducted a major investigation into the accident. Safety Board staff presented their facts and findings to the Board on May 10, 2022.

The accident pilot was his company’s chief pilot and check airman and had been flying air tours in Hawaii for 11 years. Even though he was said to be safety conscious, one colleague said he sometimes flew closer to weather than less-experienced pilots. On the day of the accident, he continued flight into rain and low-visibility conditions when other pilots were diverting. He had reversed course when he either lost control or flew into the terrain.

Leaving aside the contributing factors, the NTSB found the primary probable cause of the accident was “the pilot’s decision to continue flight under visual flight rules (VFR) into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), which resulted in the collision into terrain.”

He had logged 15,718 hr., including over 5,800 hr. in the AS350.

The second accident took place on June 7, 2020, at Joe Foss Field (KFSD) in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The pilot of a Mitsubishi MU-2B-25 lost control of the airplane immediately after takeoff. The NTSB conducted a Class 3 limited investigation and issued its final report on March 30, 2022.

The accident pilot was his company’s director of operations. He had been running the company by day and flying by night. The accident took place at 0425 on a Sunday morning. Investigators could not determine if he had napped, but he had been on duty for over 19 hr. at the time of the accident. He was in his window of circadian low (WOCL) and a fuel serviceman who spoke to him just before the accident said he seemed confused.

Investigators looked hard at powerplant issues but could not find any mechanical problems with the airplane. In the end, they couldn’t be sure of the cause, but fatigue seems like an obvious factor. The NTSB’s probable cause was “the pilot’s failure to maintain control of the airplane during takeoff for reasons that could not be determined.”

His estimated total flight time was 22,000 hr., with almost 11,000 hr. in the MU-2.

The third case was the mid-air collision of two aerial firefighting airplanes, both Air Tractor AT-802As, on July 30, 2020. The airplanes were a flight of two dropping retardant liquid on a fire near Elgin, Nevada. The NTSB ran another Class 3 limited investigation on this accident and issued its final report on April 18, 2022.

Rather than maintaining the initial 1,500-ft. separation from his lead airplane, the trailing pilot closed to within 500 ft. approaching the drop zone. When he went around, he climbed and accelerated into the lead airplane. A witness said the two planes “looked like the Blue Angels.”

The pilot had been counseled before about flying too close to his lead airplane. His reply had been “too close for whom?”

The probable cause was “the trailing pilot’s failure to maintain separation from the lead airplane during a fire-retardant deployment flight, which resulted in the trailing airplane flying through a plume of retardant and the trailing pilot’s subsequent loss of visibility that led to a collision with the lead airplane.”

The trailing pilot was the highest time pilot of all, having logged 31,400 hr. Like the other two pilots, he underestimated the risk of his actions and he pushed beyond rules and procedures designed to ensure safety.

We define risk as the combination of the severity of a possible outcome and the likelihood of it happening.

All of these pilots had to know that the severity of their actions could be extreme. But they underestimated the probability of an accident happening. The more they flew without an accident, the more they judged themselves immune to a bad outcome.

Good judgment often does go with experience, but only if we remain humble and respect rules and limitations.

Roger Cox

A former military, corporate and airline pilot, Roger Cox was also a senior investigator at the NTSB. He writes about aviation safety issues.