Experience Counts
by Tom Berge

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We all make choices. A week ago a newly certificated private pilot took off on a cross country flight to go deer hunting with his dad in the northwest corner of the state. The date was Friday the 13th. Things did not go well. While I did not know him, he was a part of our pilot community and it greatly saddens me. For some reason I cannot get the thought out of my mind as to how this type of thing continues to happen with monotonous regularity. It took the authorities 4 days to find the aircraft and pilot.

The details are sketchy as is the norm this early in the NSTB investigation. What has been reported by the media was the flight left at 5:30 pm on a four hour flight. The aircraft was a Cherokee. I remember the night well since I was supposed to give a flight lesson the next morning at 9:00 and had to cancel due to weather. In fact, earlier the day of the accident, my wife and I had come out of a movie theater around 4:00 pm and were greeted by the start of forecast rain. The system was just getting to us and was supposed to pass throughout the night. So here is a quick synopsis of the facts as reported plus my recall of the weather. A newly minted private pilot takes off after sunset into forecast and observed worsening weather at 5:30 in the evening on a long cross country to get somewhere that he must have felt a need to be. Go ahead. Read that again. Let it sink in real good.

Based on the presumed direct flight, the METARs were as follows:

Departure (LVN): 5:33 pm, 2000 OVC, 4 miles

St. Cloud: 6:34 pm, 300 SCT 1200 OVC, 2 miles

Staple: 6:34 pm, 1000 SCT 2600 OVC, 10 miles

Park Rapids: 6:44 pm, 800 SCT 1500 BKN 10 miles

Park Rapids: 6:56 pm, 1000 BKN 1700 OVC

Detroit Lakes: 6:56 pm, 400 SCT 7500 SCT, 10 miles

Detroit Lakes: 7:16 pm, 600 BKN

A text message sent by the pilot around 6:30 pm placed the aircraft in the Staples area. Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids are 52 miles WNW and 33 miles N respectively. While the exact route and times are unknown, the outcome of the flight is not.

Are any of you surprised at the outcome? I’m not. The question is why did this have to happen? Is it just human nature that there will always be a certain percentage of pilots that find themselves in situations so the rest of us can sit back and say “ Boy was he foolish?”. Then we learn from their mistakes and vow never to do something so foolish. It seems not to be quite so simple. While he was a new pilot, there are plenty of experienced pilots out there playing the same game and making what to most of us should appear to be poor decisions. The NSTB reports are full of stories that prove this out. We as pilots tend to be control freaks. That’s the allure. But with that allure, comes responsibility. This passion has risks that can far outstrip our ability to control the outcome.

With the type of flying we do, the risks are pretty evident. Probably at the top of the list is single pilot, night IFR. The “watch this” maneuvering flights are not far behind. I have heard that flying light aircraft carries about the same risk as riding a motorcycle. That sounds about right. I would suggest that these things happen either due to ignorance or arrogance. Ignorance of the conditions perhaps? Ignorance of the effects the conditions would have on the flight? Or perhaps arrogance saying the conditions do not apply. I do know that if you live long enough doing this activity that experience fills in the gaps and calms the arrogance. We all know the adage about old pilots and bold pilots.

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I’m no angel. In my twenty plus years of flying I’ve poked the bear lots of times. On one particular occasion, I crossed the line so far I almost lost sight of it. Truth be told, I did lose sight of it and still don’t know how I escaped my fate. That flight added a great deal to my experience. The question I have, “Is that the only way to learn?” I recently received my CFI certificate and plan on transition training pilots into RV’s. I can certainly teach the mechanics of flying an RV easily enough, but what about the rest of the story? Flying an RV can make pilots believe that they are better than they are. The handling qualities and the speed are intoxicating. That buzz job is just so easy and so much fun. That small line of low weather ahead is just a few minutes in an RV. No problem with a bit of scud running here or there. And of course, most pilots will succeed most of the time. That’s the dark side of flying. We gain the wrong kind of experience doing these things. Then ignorance or arrogance creeps in and eventually we get our 15 minutes of fame in the news media. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if the activity we are about to embark upon is as safe as we can make it without giving it up. Do we really need to be somewhere at a certain time? Should I just sit this flight out? These are good questions we all should be asking ourselves.

I don’t have an answer to the teaching part of experience. I’ve been thinking about coming up with a course that attempts to teach this type of decision making without the “sticking your neck out” part. It’s a tall order. All of my flying has been the same type of flying most of you do, pancake runs sprinkled with the occasional cross country. Every flight I undertake involves decisions, some more demanding than others. I’ve learned when to say when. Well, at least most of the time.

Let’s think about those pilots who gave it all away and learn from their experiences. I know I can’t possibly live long enough to make all these mistakes by myself. Now, can someone help me off my soap box?

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Here are some media links to this accident in northern Minnesota on November 13, 2009:


Minneapolis Star Tribune 11-16-2009


Minneapolis Star Tribune 11-17-2009


Minnesota Public Radio 11-18-2009


Dakota County This Week Live 11-18-2009


Minneapolis Star Tribune, 11-19-2009