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MAY, 2002

THE B52s

Unfortunately, traffic pattern difficulties aren’t limited to beginners….

Several years ago I held short of runway 9, St. Thomas, USVI. In the left seat was a brand new prospect–someone I needed to impress if his momentary enthusiasm for flight training was to catch fire. The runway threshold is at the shoreline: downwind, base and final are all flown over water. A Bonanza headed for Puerto Rico roared off just as we started runup, barely noticed in my effort to make everything on board seem smooth and everyday to my almost-student.

But before we could get going, trouble started: the Bonanza pilot, halfway through a downwind departure, reported engine problems. The tower came back, "Cleared to land, any runway."

This wasn’t as generous as it sounds: there was only one choice--return to the same runway from which the pilot had departed only moments earlier. Fortunately, it appeared in easy reach: the Bonanza was on a wide downwind at more than 1000'–he had only to move in a bit closer, pass abeam the threshold, turn base and glide on in. Anxious to rescue any remaining business prospects from the situation, I explained all this to the customer.

The Beech pilot, however, had other ideas--he flew straight past the threshold and kept going. After an eternity, perhaps four or five seconds, it was clear he was sunk. He turned a stately base and glided gently and inevitably to a wheels up touchdown in the Caribbean--perhaps 1/4 mile short of the runway. Still selling, I pointed out how smoothly he had landed and how good the chances seemed for survival.

Sure enough, four people, some carrying bags, crawled out on the wing. They barely got wet: a boat had already been launched by a rescue team and was alongside even before the plane sank from sight.

Surprisingly, my customer agreed to continue, and we had a pleasant flight. But I never saw him again: if he ever learned to fly, it wasn’t with me. I had been unable to make the obvious clear to him: even in the hands of the truly stupid, aviation had proved to be safe.

To appreciate the full extent of the Bonanza pilot’s errors, it helps to understand the departure situation in St. Thomas and the liabilities of mechanical problems. Initial climb is over rapidly rising terrain that turns the prospect of an early engine failure into a nightmare. Even with enough altitude to safely turn around, the hills continue to pose problems, making a one-eighty back to the field out of the question: the only choice is to press on and put down in the water on the other side. Finally, since every cross country carries significant over-water risk, there is special significance to engine problems during the enroute phase.

But this pilot had outlasted the early obstacles and not yet begun the extended over-water portion. Against all odds, his engine problems developed precisely at a point when he was in an ideal position to lose his engine safely. Yet he flew an impossibly wide and extended pattern that put him in the drink. Why? I don’t pretend to know. I have asked a few other pilots, and next month, I’ll begin to examine their thoughts on the puzzling popularity of "B52" patterns.


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