"Finished NY gig. Waiting out weather to fly back to ocean city md [sic] tonight."
This text was sent by 30-year-old helicopter pilot, David Jenny, sent to his brother before he and four passengers took off from Tri Cities Airport in Endicott, New York on July 27th of last year. The weather along his route never really cleared that night, but Jenny lifted the Robinson R66 helicopter off the ground anyway, roughly an hour after he sent what would be his last text.
During the flight, Jenny requested flight following from air traffic controllers at Greater Binghamton Airport under what is referred to as "visual flight rules," meaning Jenny would receive traffic and other advisories from air traffic controllers, but would be flying based on visual cues outside the aircraft without relying on the helicopter's instruments.
Roughly 30 minutes into the flight, Jenny contacted air traffic controllers at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Airport, telling them that he had flown into instrument meteorological conditions ("IMC"). In other words, Jenny was unable to fly the aircraft based on visual cues and needed to use sophisticated instruments within the aircraft - instruments which he was not qualified to rely upon. He asked them to provide a heading to the nearest airport - Skyhaven Airport in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania. Seconds later, Jenny said he was having trouble maintaining control of the helicopter. Air traffic controllers asked if Jenny was having trouble maintaining altitude. He was.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Robinson R66 crashed in a heavily wooded area, leaving a debris path of 150 yards. The crash killed Jenny and passengers Carl Woodland, 29; Woodland's son Noah, 3; Bernard Kelly, 58; and Kelly's daughter Leanna, 27.
David Jenny was not licensed to fly under these conditions because he lacked the training and qualification needed to fly the helicopter using only the aircraft's instrumentation. The overriding tragedy of this crash is that it could have been avoided. According to NTSB data, this is a pervasive problem in the general aviation community. Between 1983 and 2013, there were 533 general aviation accidents in which a pilot flew in conditions they were unqualified to be flying in. Of those crashes, 84 percent were fatal.
The issue is a difficult one for government regulators. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits general aviation pilots from flying into IMC without proper training and experience. The rule is difficult to enforce, as pilots can just say conditions were safe when they departed. According to the Press & Sun Bulletin, the FAA doesn't even keep track of how often they take action against pilots that decide to fly in weather conditions they are unqualified to fly in. As a matter of fact, the only time the FAA is likely to get involved at all is if catastrophe strikes, and by then it's too late.
The bottom line: General aviation pilots get into trouble when they fail to appreciate the weather conditions along their route of travel and when they overestimate their abilities to fly in severe weather. Pilots need to know their limits and be vigilant about checking weather conditions for their entire journey before departure.