In my 40+ years of flying I have seen several aircraft accidents unfold while I watched. A few turned out well and the aircraft occupants (and occasionally the aircraft) were able to fly another day. Others turned out not so well.
Of the aircraft fatal accidents that I have seen, all appeared to have the same characteristic… the pilot violated the Number One Rule In Aviation: Fly The Aircraft.
This image is an excerpt from the top of every emergency checklist in every type of aircraft found at a major airline where I used to work. If professional pilots have that as the first step of every emergency, why don’t we as general aviation pilots? These five steps can work in any aircraft – if the plane you are flying doesn’t give you a warning bell, siren or clacker to wake you up to the situation that is no big deal. There is probably an equally loud (or louder) alarm going off in your head, raising your blood pressure and putting your sweat glands into overdrive.
The closer you are to the ground, the less important are the steps after number one. If you have an engine failure (full or partial) on takeoff or departure, nothing matters except rule number one. It makes no difference why the engine quit or whether you are at a towered airport, your only job is to fly the aircraft to as successful a landing as you can make. Twice I have seen engines fail completely on takeoff. In both instances the accidents were fatal – taking a total of five lives. In one instance gliding straight ahead or turning ninety-degrees would have landed the aircraft in the water off a rocky coast rather than stalling nose-down into those rocks. Another could have made a ninety-degree turn to an intersecting runway, but the aircraft stalled and the wreckage landed next to the runway. They didn’t follow aviation’s number one rule.
All this came to mind on one of my recent Pacific crossings. We had just checked in with Anchorage Center as we crossed the Aleutian Island chain near Dutch Harbor. A B-747-400 with colors identifying it as belonging to an Asian airline had just passed beneath us headed the same direction. (They cruise at .84-.86 Mach while we were at .82). When I switched to the Anchorage VHF frequency I heard a pilot speaking in broken English telling the controller that they were going to have to divert to Anchorage. The controller immediately cleared them direct to the Anchorage airport. Then we watched as the plane in front of us made a right turn. The controller asked the nature of the emergency requiring the diversion. The pilot said that a fight had broken out between two of the passengers and there were injuries serious enough to require medical attention. The controller kept asking more detailed questions. It was obvious that English was not this pilot’s primary language. I could picture the cockpit with flight attendants calling to relay the conditions in the cabin, the Captain trying to direct the divert, reprogram the FMS, determine their estimated landing weight and determining whether fuel dumping would be required and give the copilot the information he needed to then translate and transmit to the controller. It came out that one of the passengers involved was U.S. military and the other was Korean. The Captain wanted military and civilian police to meet the aircraft as well as emergency medical personnel. The controller tried to get more specific information and the copilot finally came back on the radio, obviously harried and frustrated and said – I will call you back later, we have to fly the airplane now…
When you have something unusual going on in or with the airplane you have to establish priorities. Your Number One Priority – ALWAYS is to FLY THE AIRPLANE.
…..and he calmly steps off his soap-box and heads for the airport to do the annual inspection on his plane….
(No, I didn’t hear the outcome of the diversion. The other plane was soon switched to a different frequency. I did hear the controllers broadcasting that fuel dumping was in progress.)