Disclaimer: I am in no way talking bad about the company’s culture, employees or its pilots abilities. In fact, Key Lime pilots are widely considered to be some of the best in the industry. I’m simply pointing out the dangers of flying single-pilot IFR in a complicated airplane across some of the nation’s toughest terrain. It’s also important to note that not all of Key Lime Air’s operations are single-pilot, however the majority of cargo operations are single-pilot.
Picture this: You’re the single pilot of a Fairchild Swearingen Metroliner (Metroliner), a complex twin-engine turboprop flying over the turbulent Rocky Mountains of Colorado without an autopilot. It’s pitch dark outside, you’re in low visibility, and you’re relying solely on the instruments of the out of date airplane, which isn’t equipped with GPS. It need not be repeated the inherent risks of such a proposition and the extreme underlying hazards associated with it. Yet, Key Lime Air, which is a regional charter and UPS cargo feeder, does just that.
For starters, the Metroliner is a notoriously complicated and “squirrly” airplane to fly. Referred by many within the industry as “the flying pencil,” the Metroliner has built up quite a reputation for its bizarre flight characteristics. Twin engine turboprops are typically designed for flight on one engine, but not the Metroliner. If one of the two engines were to fail on takeoff or landing, it may not be possible to meet a successful end to the flight unless the engine out procedures are followed to a tee, something that pilots don’t always do when faced with this stressful situation. Mark Huber, a pilot and journalist alike stated in a 2015 article regarding the Metroliner, “In pilot speak, this is an ‘“unforgiving”’ airplane—fast with a high workload.” Huber continued, noting, “You can fly the airplane single pilot, but unless your captain is at the top of his or her game and has a ton of experience in it, that’s probably a bad idea.”
In addition to the strenuous workload imposed on the pilot by the Metroliner, the lack of an autopilot and the inability of the airplane to fly GPS approaches makes it much more dangerous. When you’re flying in the clouds or reduced visibility, hand-flying the aircraft becomes much harder given the difficulty of overcoming the numerous spatial disorientations that have plagued pilots for centuries. Spatial disorientation occurs when the pilot has no reference to the outside horizon, and consequently has no visual reference to the attitude (where the plane is pointed) of the airplane. Spatial disorientation only occurs in 5-10% of accidents, but 90% of these accidents are fatal. These accidents are typically alleviated with a functional autopilot, sufficient Instrument training, and another pilot on board the aircraft. Key Lime Air, however, contains none of these safety barriers. Coupled with the risk of the inability of the airplane to fly the increasingly modern GPS type approaches, it’s easy to find the plethora of problems waiting to happen.
Flying as a single pilot is much more dangerous than two pilots in the cockpit. According to data published by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) from 2009-2018, single-pilot operations accounted for six times more loss of control in flight accidents, which are the leading fatal accidents in the industry. Furthermore, single-pilot operations are putting the pilot under higher stress, fatigue and propensity towards worse overall decision making. The high workload environment leads to accidents, one of which occurred on December 5, 2016 aboard Key Lime Air flight 308 en route from Panama City-Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) to Albany-Southwest Georgia Regional Airport (ABY). The NTSB reported that the probable cause of the accident was the pilot's decision to initiate and continue the flight into known adverse weather conditions, resulting in spatial disorientation, loss of airplane control, and a subsequent in-flight breakup. The pilot flying the Metroliner was 39 years old, and boasted an impressive 8,451 total hours—4,670 being in the Metroliner. That is what makes this particular accident so terrifying. Even an experienced pilot can fall victim to the external pressures that played a role in him making the decision to depart into poor weather conditions. Without the assistance of an autopilot or a copilot, the pilot met a fatal end.
These factors play a role in Key Lime Air’s unusually poor safety record. From 2000 to 2007, the company had already experienced six crashes and seven fatalities. Since then, the accident rate seems to have slowed a bit, although the airline has still been involved in three more accidents with two fatalities. The culmination of flying a complicated airplane single-pilot in bad weather without the help of a copilot or automation is the perfect recipe for disaster.
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