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Buddy Holly anniversary and the perils of IMC

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Buddy Holly anniversary and the perils of IMC

Old 11th Feb 2024, 15:39
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Buddy Holly anniversary and the perils of IMC




MOST OF you youngsters out there have never heard of Buddy Holly. But for us teenagers of the time he was an even bigger star than Taylor Swift is today, and when Buddy and two fellow stars were killed in a plane crash 65 years ago this month the story went round the world. In 1972 it inspired Don McLean to write his song American Pie -- the day the music died.

Buddy Holly (22), Ritchie Valens (17) and the Big Bopper (28) had been touring America by bus but wanted to reach their next venue in time to do their laundry. They hired an air taxi to fly the 250 miles from Mason City, Iowa, to Fargo, North Dakota. They did not know that their pilot Roger Peterson had a commercial licence but only 50 hours’ instrument training when they took off at 1am into a 3000ft cloud base with light snow and winds gusting 20-35 knots.

The result was inevitable, and five miles from the airport their Beech V-tail Bonanza dived into the ground at an estimated 170 mph. All died instantly as their bodies were thrown clear and the Beech disintegrated.

Clearing out the loft one day I found a Buddy Holly 45rpm record which inspired a search for the accident report. I was shocked that anyone should attempt a light aircraft flight in such conditions but even worse was to come.

The Bonanza was fitted with a Sperry G3 attitude gyro which displayed the sky in its lower half and the ground in its upper half -- the direct opposite of all artificial horizons to this day. Why this should be I have no idea, perhaps someone can explain it?



An added complication is the level adjustment knob which moves the little plane up and down, presumably to follow current trim attitudes. Of course after changing attitude and re-trimming if you forget to return the little plane to the correct level ... I encountered a few of these AH in the 1960s but was warned to level the datum plane before takeoff and leave it alone thereafter.

The FAA report concluded that the accident was due to an inexperienced pilot undertaking flight in weather beyond his capabilities. “Since Roger Peterson had received his instrument training in aircraft equipped with the conventional type artificial horizon, and since this instrument and the Sperry attitude gyro are opposite in their pictorial display of the pitch attitude, it is probable that the reverse sensing would at times produce reverse control action. . . therefore, he could have become confused and thought that he was making a climbing turn when in reality he was making a descending turn.

“The probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s unwise decision to embark on a flight which would necessitate flying solely by instruments when he was not properly certificated or qualified to do so. Contributing factors were serious deficiencies in the weather briefing, and the pilot’s unfamiliarity with the instrument which determines the attitude of the aircraft.”


The sad story is repeated every year as pilots bite off more than they can handle. But for me the victims still live on as happy memories of my youth. Off we go then ... have a listen



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Old 11th Feb 2024, 18:14
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This reflects the poor flying techniques still observed today. The artificial horizon or attitude indicator as we now call it is, some say, the 'master' and always to be believed and followed - NO it must not because as with all instruments it can be in error or perhaps relevant to this story to be mis-set or misinterpreted by the pilot. We should always abide by the mnemonic we were taught on day one: Power + Attitude = Performance; and this remains true whether in cloud or not. As my old mentor emphasised continuously during training; "the engine doesn't know your over water and the aeroplane doesn't know your in cloud." Any instruments to be acted on must be crossed checked using the mnemonic above before any action is undertaken.
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Old 11th Feb 2024, 18:45
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Agreed, but my point was why Sperry made an instrument that displayed the reverse of all other AH. It must have been like an aircraft with crossed controls where up was down and down was up.
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Old 11th Feb 2024, 20:10
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why Sperry made an instrument that displayed the reverse of all other AH
I opine that was in an era when there was little standardization. Skilled instrument pilots had mastered flying in IMC with less, and a confusing (to us) presentation was only a small factor in their instrument flying, where a newer pilot perhaps depended too much upon a single instrument.

I once punched into a line of snow, straight, and level, lots of altitude, everything normal. Moments later my attitude indicator showed me in a descending roll. It even had a vacuum warning flag (which was not presented) giving more reason to not suspect an error with its indication. I began to follow it for a moment, but realized everything else was normal, only it was presenting conflicting information. So I reverted to needle, ball and airspeed, along with confirming VSI and altitude. When I emerged from the line of snow a minute later, I was straight and level, and everything was correct, other than the attitude indicator, which was pretty well upside down. Its gyro had chosen that moment to seize a bearing. The instrument did not know that I had suddenly entered IMC, just a one in a million coincidence.

Cockpit standardization is newer than some of the planes still in service. With 60 hours flying a mid age DHC Beaver last spring, I was asked to ferry back another. It was more than 600 serial numbers older, and its very much not not standard to the one I had been flying. Instrument faces were different (so different presentation) and the throttle and propeller controls were reversed. It was fine, as long as I thought about what I was doing.

There can be a lot of "can do" pressure, particularly piloting the fancy plane with the important passengers. Newer pilots have to learn to step back and recognize a situation with increased risk and pressure, and take more time, or consider declining.
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Old 11th Feb 2024, 20:21
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The report on this accident makes for interesting reading as, to my mind, it seems somewhat flawed.

For a start the 'synopsis' delivers a rather damning conclusion that is almost emotional in its delivery, rather than merely factual.

Accurate detail on the pilot is lacking. For example the report states "He had ... accumulated 711 flying hours, of which 128 were in Bonanza aircraft ... had approximately 52 hours of dual instrument training and had passed his instrument written examination", but what does this mean? Had he had 52 hours of IFR training and this was his first solo flight? Had he 52 hours of IFR time in total? Had he not yet passed the IFR flight examination (to accompany the written exam)? An earlier sentence suggests this is the case "He failed an instrument flight check on March 21, 1958, nine months prior to the accident", but the reader is left to wonder whether he had perhaps completed a later check?

The report also appears to have a narrow focus and does not examine other peripheral factors such as fatigue, nor the responsibility of Hubert Dwyer (the a/c owner and charter service operator) as employer of the pilot. Admittedly I read between the lines here, but I cannot believe that Dwyer, who was present during the whole sorry affair, didn't know that the pilot had (we presume) no IFR license. As I see it if he (Dwyer) had no properly capable pilots available he should have refused the charter, and in accepting with (I believe) the knowledge that the pilot wasn't properly certificated nor experienced - and thus shouldn't be flying his a/c - he becomes at least partially responsible for the deaths of all four occupants. Dwyer's experience isn't specifically stated in the report so again one is left to guess, but as "a certificated commercial pilot, the local fixed-base operator at the Mason City Airport, and owner of Bonanza N 3794N" one might expect the pilot to look to him for advice. To my mind this adds significantly to Dwyer's culpability.

Finally I see that in 2015 there was a suggestion that the NTSB reopen the investigation. As far as I could find this hasn't happened; maybe it never will but I do wonder if full disclosure of source material might allow a better understanding of the lead up to the event than is presently the case?

FP.

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Old 11th Feb 2024, 20:50
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Originally Posted by Geriaviator
Agreed, but my point was why Sperry made an instrument that displayed the reverse of all other AH. It must have been like an aircraft with crossed controls where up was down and down was up.
Its not Sperry, it’s a design philosophy.
Russian attitude indicators are “reversed”
compared to western also.
Its just a matter of which one becomes the industry standard.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossair_Flight_498
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Old 12th Feb 2024, 12:13
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Originally Posted by Geriaviator
Agreed, but my point was why Sperry made an instrument that displayed the reverse of all other AH.
At the time, there was no standard. If you're one of the first to come up with something there is no body of work to compare yourself against. Most attitude indicators at the time only showed a single horizon line so Sperry had a choice as to how to portray the sky/ground image on their instruments. Their choice did not end up becoming the industry standard. It is tempting to look back and say 'they did something different' but you're applying hindsight bias when you do that.
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Old 12th Feb 2024, 12:28
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Is it that important to have a colour scheme; brown for terra firmer and blue for the sky? Although helpful I don't believe it is critical and therefore will make loss of control more likely. Disorientation and a loss of confidence with training can be overwhelming and lethal. The effects of disorientation should never be skimped during instrument training. The human senses are useless in IMC. In my experience too many are resistant to this fact and therefore it must be proven and resolved in flying training. To the cynic the classroom is not enough.

The V tailed Bonanza is an incredibly stable aeroplane. Not to be forgotten is that it is equally stable in all attitudes. In a dive with the airspeed increasing and rapidly approaching VNE, the Bonanza can be difficult to recover from the dive to normal flight. This is not a time to experiment and training must be followed.
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Old 13th Feb 2024, 17:42
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It's quite likely that Peterson was experiencing a somatogravic illusion, where acceleration, in the absence of visual information may be interpreted as a pitch change, leading to a control input opposite to that required. in this case, a slight descent and subsequent acceleration may have made him think the aircraft was pitching up. leading to a further nose down control input. It was not widely understood at the time and the report wouldn't have made reference to it.

This illusion was the subject of my MSc thesis. My cohort of students used to set each other challenges, usually making reference to something our supervising tutors would not realise. Our task for our MSC thesis was to include the name of a dead rock star. With this accident, I achieved three.
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Old 14th Feb 2024, 06:26
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Most attitude indicators at the time only showed a single horizon line so Sperry had a choice as to how to portray the sky/ground image on their instruments. Their choice did not end up becoming the industry standard
Wonder if it was the pilots first time with a Sperry AH, doubt any of us would keep the greasy side down if it was presented to us, the Crossair accident pointed out by B2N2 shows how quickly it can turn to worms when using an unaccustomed instrument.
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Old 14th Feb 2024, 08:10
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Such a loss to the Music Industry...
and yes as mentioned the event in 1959 became known as "The Day the Music Died"

Other notable Artists and high profile people lost in similar type of small plane crashes were Patsy Cline in 1963, Jim Reeves 1964,
and Otis Redding 1967 although the crash cause here was not determined but bad weather was a factor.
and notably JFK Jr.1999 in the Martha's Vineyard plane crash.
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Old 14th Feb 2024, 09:54
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You could probably add Jim Croce to that list, downwind take off at night in foggy conditions, pilot also apparently medically unfit. Hit a tree...
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Old 14th Feb 2024, 18:46
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downwind take off at night in foggy conditions, pilot also apparently medically unfit
shiver
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Old 15th Feb 2024, 20:03
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Time after time there are incidents with entertainers, sports personalities, etc, who when starting to earn a bit have a "manager" in charge of arranging and booking private charter aircraft, which all sounds exciting and big boys' stuff, but in fact they go for what they do elsewhere, get quotes and go for the one with the lowest figure in the bottom right corner. Due diligence and such like goes out of the window, all charter aircraft are perfect and professional, surely. It doesn't help that their commitments lead to expectations of 24x7x365 operation.

Buddy Holly preferred to go by air that night because their group's charter tour bus, organised by the same manager, was likewise an old heap from the cheapest quote, tight seating and in winter overnight conditions it had no effective heater.
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Old 15th Feb 2024, 20:48
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Originally Posted by WHBM
... get quotes and go for the one with the lowest figure in the bottom right corner. Due diligence and such like goes out of the window...
I understand your view, and it may well be true in some instances, but I doubt it's the the case for all. With Jim Croce, for example, the pilot was very experienced (over 14000 hrs, 2000 on type), and although it wouldn't have been the only thing important to me, were I were looking for a charter, I think it would have ticked that particular box. While there were clearly other factors involved in the accident (weather and, sadly, said pilot was also not well - something he may not have known) it's not evident to me that there were any other initial warning signs for someone wanting to charter from that particular operator?

BTW I use the question mark in part because a quick trawl of the 'net only showed an accident 'brief' for N50JR in 1973, and the NTSB search links didn't work so I wasn't able to view the full report. It may be that would reveal other issues that might have raised a flag, but in the meantime the thing that may have concerned me most in terms of heightened risk appears to be weather - something in common, to some degree, with the N 3794N crash.

FP.
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Old 16th Feb 2024, 06:30
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And of course, in more recent times that Footballer lad whose plane did not make it back to Cardiff Airport from France.
Emiliano Sala.
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Old 16th Feb 2024, 07:01
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Originally Posted by Fl1ingfrog
Is it that important to have a colour scheme; brown for terra firmer and blue for the sky? Although helpful I don't believe it is critical and therefore will make loss of control more likely. Disorientation and a loss of confidence with training can be overwhelming and lethal. The effects of disorientation should never be skimped during instrument training. The human senses are useless in IMC. In my experience too many are resistant to this fact and therefore it must be proven and resolved in flying training. To the cynic the classroom is not enough.

The V tailed Bonanza is an incredibly stable aeroplane. Not to be forgotten is that it is equally stable in all attitudes. In a dive with the airspeed increasing and rapidly approaching VNE, the Bonanza can be difficult to recover from the dive to normal flight. This is not a time to experiment and training must be followed.
The Bo was and is an exceptionally clean airplane and as such is especially susceptible to nose down mishandling in IMC by inexperienced instrument pilots.
Many Bo fatalities were the result of a nose low condition with rising airspeed requiring pilots to cancel bank before applying pitch to recover and they failed to do so. Bank MUST be cancelled before pitch is applied in a nose low condition as we all know..........or damn site SHOULD know !!!!!!!
There is no way to know if this was a factor in the Holly incident but considering the pilot's inexperience certainly a potential factor. Personally I would be leaning heavily toward the ADI reverse visual face as a primary suspect coupled with the pilot's low experience level.
As a flight safety advisor I find it inexcusable that the industry allowed a non-standard protocol for ADI's during the period. That was an accident waiting to happen.
The ball was REALLY dropped by this factor.
Dudley Henriques
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Old 16th Feb 2024, 16:28
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Items like instruments with a different approach are commonly because someone has got a patent on the existing method, and so other manufacturers have to come up with a way to get round this. It is design by patent evasion rather than what works appropriately.

ADIs like this were universal on Soviet era aircraft. Now I know these were not in common use in the West at the time, but there was plenty of experience with them. But just like the British Airways One-Elevens built with switches which went the opposite way to other One-Elevens (done for consistency with BA Tridents, but then an issue when they got other One-Elevens from mergers; we discussed this recently) you just have to understand and handle the human factors involved.

Back to prominent personalities lost, and it's noticeable the number lost from IMC at night. Credit to that PPL instructor who took me, outside the syllabus, up into clouds at night. Just in case ...
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Old 16th Feb 2024, 22:21
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My first three aircraft had switches going in different directions..Trident opposite to VC10 and DC9 used windshield as datum with opposite switch direction depending on whether above or below windshield which led me into making an error which could have been fatal. Very heavy icing at night during high speed and turbulent descent ..skipper, hand flying, orders engine ant icing on which I thought I did but he had it on already (very dark cockpit, long day and one of those movements where you have to use your muscles to hit the right switch)..leaving the squall I went to turn it off…
******* so selected one on and waited to see if it didn’t fail before cycling the other done. P&W and well built.
WRT Crossair - they often flew a shortcut departure off 28 which ATC gave them when passing around 4’000ft iirc..which was a right turn instead of the left SID. Skipper ex Aeroflot crop sprayer with horizon that had a geared aeroplane symbol in the centre and indicated the opposite way to western horizons. ATC transmitted crossair confirm you are in the left turn which skipper obviously interpreted as he had mistakenly turned right early and rolled left from the left turn.
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