There is a video making the rounds from a crash that happened at my home airport of Northwest Regional Airport (52F) in Roanoke, TX, where a student pilot impacted a vehicle in a Cessna 172. As a pilot who has shot many approaches at that airport (and a true aviation enthusiast), I wanted to offer my perspective of what happened.
News reporters seem to be making a huge deal about Kelly Dr, the road that borders the north end of the active runway 17, where the word “STOP” is painted on the ground to warn drivers of aircraft overhead. This road is actually not managed by the airport, but I don’t see that as a safety issue. There are signs EVERYWHERE that help drivers understand where they are—not to mention that when you are on that road you see the runway right there. In the video it is unclear to me if the driver stopped and looked, but the result seems to clearly indicate that he did not. I’ve waited at the STOP line before in a car and watched planes flying in on final. If the weather is OK for landings at the airport (there are no instrument procedures here so fog or low clouds are not an issue), there is no reason why you can’t see or hear an aircraft. In the final NTSB report, the driver said he rolled his windows down and stopped, but I don’t believe he did that for a second. If he did, he would have heard or seen the aircraft and waited. The driver was the trigger that caused the accident—and if he had been paying attention like a self-proclaimed aviation enthusiast, he would have seen that aircraft and waited until it was over the runway to continue. But was it entirely the driver’s fault?
Landing and takeoff are the most dangerous portions of flight. Things happen very fast on landing, so pilots must be alert. If you go to YouTube and look for cockpit videos focused on the pilot’s face you will see very few eye blinks and a pupils-dilated, steady gaze out the window and at the instruments. Every time I fly that approach to 17, one of the things I am looking for is a driver who is not paying attention to the signs and crossing into my path. My hand is on the throttle and I can quickly goose it to go around if needed. And believe me, when I land, I’m going to find that car and give the driver a talking to. The pilot of the plane in question was a student, but a student at the flight school on the field. There is no question in my mind that he had landed aircraft dozens of times at that field and was well aware of the danger of cars (as well as other unwritten rules at that field). So, it’s not like this was his first time landing there. He should have seen the car and gone around.
But even that isn’t really the issue. Go watch the video and watch his approach right before he crosses the white fence on the north side of Kelly Dr. He sinks quickly which turns his descent into a dangerous curve.
One of the first things you are taught when shooting approaches is to have a stable, constant descent rate into the into the field. You learn this especially with fields with obstacles on either end of the runway, which is why the touchdown point you aim for is not at the end of the runway, but 1,000 feet from the end. Back to the video, you’ll notice that he sinks dramatically, clearing the fence by 2-3 feet, and slamming his landing gear right into the SUV. He wasn’t over the runway yet, but he was just 5 feet off the ground? That’s dangerous. Unsteady approaches during a checkride would cause an FAA examiner to think twice about passing that student. The final NTSB report shows calculations for what his altitude SHOULD have been, and it was much higher.
Was this a preventable accident? Absolutely! Both parties were at fault. A pilot with an unstable approach and a complacent driver who wasn’t paying attention to where airplanes are when near an active runway.
Does this impact my view of Northwest Regional Airport? No! I’m more concerned about the issues we’ve been having lately around working fuel pumps.
There have been a string of accidents related to that airport recently, but it’s nothing to do with the airport. In every case it was some form of pilot error. In fact, I went through all the NTSB accidents listed for that airport and this is the first time a car has been struck. When it comes down to who is at fault, the NTSB will blame the pilot for failing to maintain a safe altitude. I can’t say I disagree with that ruling, either. When talking to my family about this, I mentioned that steeper approaches wouldn’t allow something like this to happen, but as always, I will remain quite vigilant about traffic on Kelly Dr. when landing.
Pilots can use this as a safety reminder for airport operations. It could’ve been a whole lot worse. Thankfully it wasn’t. Everybody walked away with minor cuts and bruises. This is an easily preventable incident with a proper, stable approach and pilot awareness of the traffic around the runway.
Update: Here’s the final NTSB report.