Why Student Pilots Shouldn’t Carry Passengers

By Robert Mark on February 3rd, 2021

Good pilots become better pilots with experience. One of an aviator’s top hurdles on the way to gaining the best experience is becoming a practical risk manager. When does a flight make sense considering the fuel available, the cargo, the weather, the time element and a few other concerns? And when is a flight a bad risk for many of the same reasons, or to put it more bluntly, when do some flights simply represent a stupid risk?

Like the advice most parents offer their teenagers about late-hour adventures, especially when they’re behind the wheel of a vehicle, nothing good ever seems to happen in the middle of the night. Sadly, that applies to flying too as the NTSB explained in a recent preliminary report of an accident that occurred on December 16, 2020, near Bossier City, Louisiana.

Photo courtesy of FlightAware

The pilot of a PA-28 – N55168 – departed Shreveport Downtown Airport (DTN), Louisiana at 4:17 am when the local weather was reported as a 600-foot overcast and 10 miles visibility making the airport IFR. The pilot, however, was not instrument rated. Per the NOTAM, Downtown Tower was also not staffed at the time the aircraft departed. The airplane crashed about 20 minutes later at 4:35 am claiming the life of the pilot and the single passenger on board. The preliminary report offers a couple of insights into what might have been going on in the pilot’s mind that morning.

But this strange early-morning adventure turned reckless when the report noted pilot possessed only a student pilot certificate at the time of the accident. Student pilots are, of course, prohibited from carrying passengers at any time. So, what in the world spurred this aviator on to make a flight when so many issues were already conspiring against him and his passenger?

An airport security video and records show that DTN’s pilot-controlled lighting (PCL) was activated at 0412 and an airplane departed Runway 14 at 0417 squawking a VFR 1200 code. Nearby Shreveport TRACON (SHV) controllers saw the target appear on their radar at 0418.

The Piper flew an irregular flight path headed east after takeoff, but the airplane seemed to pause to maneuver over Barksdale Air Force Base (BAD) for most of the remaining time it was airborne, perhaps for a little sightseeing excursion? The area around the Air Force Base is dotted with obstacles that reach between 500 and 800 feet AGL. A low cloud deck with 10 miles of visibility would at least have helped the pilot see some of these obstacles if they were looking. An SHV approach controller called the air base control tower to let them know the Piper was flying overhead between 600 and 1,800 feet MSL. Believing the airplane might be experiencing an emergency of some kind, the Barksdale controller cranked up the base’s runway lights to full brightness and tried unsuccessfully to contact the pilot by radio.

Late in the flight, radar showed the airplane in a left descending turn before all data ended at 0439. The airplane impacted a remote, wooded terrain on the air base’s property during which the left wing completely separated from the fuselage and the right wing partially so. Most of the airplane was crushed during impact which meant the two people aboard must have died instantly.

When the NTSB reviewed the CFI’s records related to the student pilot, they showed the instructor had endorsed the student about a month before the accident to fly locally in the DTN traffic pattern, but only with the instructor’s express approval before each flight. The instructor also emphasized to the pilot that they were never allowed to carry passengers. The student pilot never contacted the instructor before the December 16 flight. This first NTSB report did not indicate any conversations the instructor might have had with the NTSB about this student’s state of mind.

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As the Investigators Begin Their Work

There are so many issues surrounding this flight and the pilot’s judgment that it’s tough to find a place to begin any kind of discussion. Consider that this student completely ignored the FAA’s prohibition against student pilots carrying passengers. The loss of any life in a GA aircraft is always tragic, but this pilot’s poor judgment needlessly cost two lives.

Why fly in the middle of the night, into IFR weather no less? Was the pilot unaware of the weather or did they simply disregard the report? If the tower had been operating, the flight would have required a takeoff clearance during which the controller would have queried the pilot about their intention. When the airport is IFR, a departure would have required a special VFR clearance. At night, that clearance demands the pilot also be instrument rated and current. It’s safe to assume, however, that none of this would have made any difference to the pilot.

The preliminary report doesn’t detail how much total flying time the student pilot had logged prior to the accident. The single endorsement limiting the pilot’s activities might have been the pilot’s first such approval or they might have gained additional flying experience earlier with a different instructor. It does seem a bit odd that a relatively new pilot was able to keep the airplane fairly upright during most of this night excursion. Few students have any night experience by the time they receive their first CFI endorsement. Of course, the short success of this 20-minute flight might also have been the result of plain dumb luck, until of course, it wasn’t.

Clearly, this pilot was a risk-taker, not only with their own but also their passenger’s life. It’s doubtful that most people willing to accompany a friend on a flight would understand enough about aviation to ask if the pilot was licensed.

The green line highlights the sight-seeing like route of the PA-28

We might also infer a few more things about the pilot from the choice to fly at 4:30 am. Perhaps they believed no one would notice the pilot and a passenger approaching the parked Piper, or the need to avoid interacting with ATC. Perhaps the accident pilot actually owned the airplane. They might have decided in some crazy way that since it was their airplane they could fly whenever they wanted. I had a student like that once.

The NTSB will of course also be digging for more sinister causes to this tragedy. We can hope the local coroner was able to conduct enough of an autopsy to learn if anything like alcohol or illicit drugs might have been flowing in their bloodstream. This would not be the first accident resulting from one or more people climbing aboard an airplane after first ingesting a little liquid courage that robs the pilot of most rational judgment.

In the end, it might actually be silly to refer to this tragic crash as an accident. There are just so many opportunities the pilot had to back out of this middle-of-the-night adventure all of which they ignored. The airplane was built in 1973, so there is always a chance the avionics had been upgraded to include some sort of flight recording device that might offer some insights. But then the report that most of the fuselage was crushed during impact makes this possibility no better than a maybe for why the pilot lost control of the airplane. At that time of the day, fatigue could have suddenly caught up with this aviator. Or perhaps the pilot was distracted by something inside or outside the cockpit, or maybe the fuel supply ran out. The questions will go on.

As that final report is created, investigators will likely have generated more questions than answers because there probably wasn’t much on board to record much data.  And as good as are the NTSB efforts at digging for a probable cause and any contributing factors – they usually report on the “what”, but not always the “why?” – we might really want to know. “The pilot lost control of the aircraft due to a lack of a suitable horizon,” or “The pilot lost control of the airplane after trying to execute a steep turn to avoid an object ahead.”

The NTSB certainly won’t answer the question probably front and center for the families of these victims or the poor flight instructor, like “What in the Hell was this pilot doing flying around in IFR conditions with a passenger in the middle of the night in the first place?”

Rob Mark, publisher

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