Pilot error: Asking the “why” question

Colleen Mondor has written a thought provoking essay for the Alaska Dispatch about what causes pilot error that is well worth reading by pilots everywhere. Colleen began by telling the story of how a friend of hers was flying on a a clear day in a single-engine Cessna 207 hauling a load of mail when he flew into a box canyon at a low altitude, hit the ridge line and cart-wheeled. Her friend did not survive.

The weeks and months after the tragedy was followed with the overwhelming question of "why," a question she has become accustomed to asking after a crash – an all too common occurrence in Alaska. She then added:

Why did a pilot seek to overtake one of my classmates on final approach at an uncontrolled airfield resulting in a fatal mid-air collision when I was in college? We will never know. Why did one of my co-workers at a Fairbanks commuter crash into the Yukon River when one engine failed on a twin engine aircraft? We will never know.

And while Colleen noted that Alaska is famous for its treacherous landscape and unpredictable weather, she was quick to add that such characteristics alone are no excuse for the state’s poor aviation safety record and the question everyone still struggles with after an accident is why pilots “sometimes abandon the most fundamental of flight safety lessons for nebulous chances at success.”

As for the NTSB, Colleen pointed out their task is only to determine what causes an accident. And even after the Probable Cause accident reports are completed, investigators often still do not know why a pilot made the last choices before a crash – especially if the crash was fatal.

As for Colleen’s friend who died in the Cessna 207 crash, the NTSB concluded he was flying at a low level because he was following a wolf pack. However, why he allowed the wolves to lead him into a box canyon he was unfamiliar with at a low altitude will always be a mystery…

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