By Dan Bartlett
Next week, three of my NTSB colleagues and I will attend Communicating for Safety, the safety and technology conference hosted by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). Although NTSB Members and staff have previously presented and attended this conference, this will be the first year that the NTSB will have an exhibit, booth #7. This gives us an excellent opportunity to highlight one our Most Wanted List issue areas, General Aviation: Identify and Communicate Hazardous Weather.
When it comes to improving hazardous weather awareness in General Aviation (GA), at least three parties play a critical role: the GA pilot, air traffic control, and the National Weather Service. A common and dangerous misconception that can lead to tragic results is the assumption that one of the other parties has better weather capabilities than “you” do, so frequent communication is critical. One of our goals at this year’s conference is to emphasize the role of air traffic control in hazardous weather awareness by using case studies. Let me give you an example.
On the morning of July 9, 2007, a Piper PA-32-260 encountered severe weather and broke up in-flight over Tyringham, Massachusetts, killing the pilot and pilot-rated passenger. On the afternoon of the previous day, the instrument-rated pilot had contacted Bridgeport Federal Contract Facility Automated Flight Service Station to request predicted flight weather conditions for a 0600 departure from Wiscasset, Maine, to Columbia, New York. Bridgeport advised the pilot of potential marginal weather along portions of his route and suggested an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan, which the pilot subsequently filed.
During the course of his flight, the pilot spoke with two approach controllers. The first controller advised the pilot of hazardous weather conditions. Approximately seven minutes before the accident, he also advised the relief controller that it looked like the Piper pilot would have to turn and that he wasn’t certain if the pilot had weather radar. For the next five minutes, the relief controller made five routine radio transmissions, but none to the Piper pilot. About a minute before the accident, the pilot advised that he was encountering hazardous weather and requested to divert to the south, which the relief controller approved.
Despite the fact that a relief controller had been briefed to turn the accident airplane due to weather, the relief controller failed to issue weather information or initiate a flight deviation around known and clearly observed weather, despite very little traffic and a light workload at the time. The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was “[t]he pilot’s inadvertent encounter with thunderstorms during cruise flight. Contributing to the accident was the failure of air traffic control to appropriately issue weather information and initiate an in-flight deviation around known and clearly observed weather.”
This isn’t the first accident we have investigated where weather guidance from air traffic control could have made a difference. As air traffic control investigators, we understand the primary responsibilities of air traffic control, but also know that the provision of additional services is not optional, but rather is required when the work situation permits.
The overwhelming majority of aviation-related deaths in the United States occur in GA, and historically, about two-thirds of all GA accidents that occur in instrument meteorological conditions are fatal. It seems appropriate that at Communicating for Safety, the NTSB will stress the vital role that communication plays in driving down the accident rate. So please come find us at booth #7 to learn more about steps you can take to make the skies safer for the GA community.
Dan Bartlett is an investigator in the NTSB’s Office of Aviation Safety.