Fear of Flying

Nall Report: Accident Trends and Factors for 1996

by 1997 Air Safety Foundation, Airline Owners and Pilots Association

Just before dawn on Wednesday, October 13, 1998, a small single-engine plane took off from Montgomery County Airpark, twenty miles northwest of Washington, D.C. The plane was a Cessna 172 “Skyhawk”—an old-fashioned-looking craft, with its Spirit of St. Louis-style high-wing design. The Skyhawk is the most widely used training airplane because it is so stable and hard to mis-fly. This particular plane had a registration code on its tail ending with the letters “KL,” and was called “Kilo Lima,” for short, based on the words used by pilots to stand for letters of the alphabet. It was an adapted model with an extra-powerful engine and was used mainly to fly traffic reporters over the Washington Beltway for morning, midday, and evening “drive-time” radio broadcasts on the congestion below.

On a typical weekday morning, Kilo Lima would be one of four or five airplanes, plus one or more helicopters, used by traffic-reporting services to observe Washington roads. But this morning, Kilo Lima was alone; the pilots of the other airplanes decided not to fly. A bank of fog was moving over the city, and while conditions were clear at Montgomery Airpark at 6 AM when Kilo Lima departed, the ominous forecasts persuaded the other pilots not to chance a flight. (The most disturbing indication was that the air temperature had dropped to match the dew point exactly, meaning that the air was about to become saturated and fill with fog.)

The usual procedure was for traffic planes to fly south toward Washington along Interstate 270, then make a counterclockwise semicircle along the Beltway to the east side of town, then follow traffic back into the city, toward National Airport. For the first hour after takeoff, Kilo Lima apparently followed this pattern. But its traffic reporter filed few updates in that time, as clouds and fog obscured the roads.

Half an hour after takeoff, the plane had flown its semicircle and was over the Beltway a dozen miles east of downtown. With conditions steadily worsening, the pilot decided to land. He approached the airport at College Park, Maryland, where the fog was too thick for him even to attempt a landing. Next he tried a small airport called Freeway, whose runway is unusually short and narrow. (Montgomery’s runway, by no means large, is 4,200 feet long and 75 feet wide. Freeway’s is only 2,425 feet by 30.) With fog reaching nearly to the ground, the pilot could not see the runway as he descended for approach and landing. He tried to land once but had to abort the approach and roar up into the clouds again at the last moment. He tried a second time and apparently misjudged the runway’s position by 100 yards to the side. Around 7 AM, his plane slammed into the rear bedroom of a house next to the airport, killing the pilot, critically injuring the reporter, and terrifying the mother and daughter who had been in that room only moments before.

Through the day, the story…

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