I am a pilot who lives in Kentucky so I feel the urge to write a little about the tragedy that occurred last Friday night east of Paducah, Kentucky and attempt to get something out of this that we can use as pilots. I remember the weather on Friday very clearly because I joked about going flying with my girlfriend Tori. The ceiling was very low, about 600 ft and misting, not to mention it was cold (about 35 degrees that night), so if Marty Gutzler was a smart pilot, which every account I have read say he was very experienced, then he most likely was taking precautions to avoid icing. What I don’t understand is why he made the conscious decision to fly in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) at night, with visible precipitation over the rolling, wooded terrain of western Kentucky. No doubt he did not expect anything to go wrong because he has done some similar flying in the past.
However, I think every pilot needs to take a step back and really consider their options and how important their cargo is. When I flew from London, Kentucky back to Lexington, a distance of 50 miles on a clear night last summer, I was nervous because if something goes wrong at night you can’t see where you are going to land, especially out where no lit highways are nearby. Normally I would fly at 2,500 ft at least in the dark, and the Stinson is light and can glide sufficiently well if I had engine trouble. Marty was flying a fully loaded Piper Seneca in IMC at night and 1800 feet MSL. At this altitude he would be barely scraping the bottom of the clouds, probably to be able to see the ground below him in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately for everyone, something did go wrong this time, and with only 800 feet to work with and a vast black ground below him, Marty’s only option was to fly straight ahead and hope for a gentle crash.
Unfortunately, most of rural Kentucky is wooded and hilly which are non-ideal conditions for something to go wrong, but it still went very wrong, and Marty Gutzler knew he had only that one option. In a crash like this it is nothing short of a miracle that 7 year old Sailor Gutzler survived. And not only that, but she walked nearly a mile in the dense woods and just happened to stumble on the house of 71 year old Larry Wilkins.
As pilots we are all trained to avoid feelings of invincibility to disaster, so that we can better prevent disaster. I think we should all look at this crash and be reminded that several years of experience cannot always save us, and to beware of the ever present possibility that something will go terribly wrong. Most problems with the aircraft go wrong in conditions where it is least convenient for something to go wrong, so I just don’t put myself in that situation.