A 200-hour pilot set out to ferry his Bellanca from California to New Jersey. He didn't make it. There were no flight plans or telephone or radio contacts with the aircraft, and not much left of the plane. But it's not too hard to guess what happened...and why.
May 7, 1997
|About the Author ...
Brian Jacobson has over 12,000 hours
in all types of general aviation aircraft from trainers to jets. He has been
flying since 1970, and earned most of his certificates and ratings on the East
Coast in the early 1970s.
His first aviation employment was as sales manager at Air Worcester, Inc.,
an FBO in Massachusetts. Through the years, he worked for several FBOs selling
airplanes and flying charters. For nine years, he was chief pilot for a division
of ITT based in Providence, Rhode Island, and later was a bizjet captain for
Textron, Inc., out of Providence, Augusta, Georgia., and Pontiac, Michigan.
During those years, he flew real-world IFR in all sorts of weather and some of
the most congested airspace in the world.
Since 1988, Jacobson has been a member of
the National Aircraft Appraisers Association, and owns and operates a firm
called Great Lakes Aircraft Appraisal, appraising airplanes for buyers, sellers
and financial institutions. He also helps individuals and businesses buy
aircraft by evaluating their needs, recommending the type of aircraft they
should purchase, and helping them locate and procure those aircraft.
Jacobson is also a professional aviation writer. He is a contributing
editor for AVweb, Aviation Safety, and IFR
Refresher; a contributor to Plane &
Pilot; and can be heard on Belvoir Publications' Pilot Audio
In October 1996, he published his first book,
Flying on the
Gages, in which he discusses his experiences flying IFR. In May, 1997, his
second book was published:
Purchasing & Evaluating Airplanes.
Moving is difficult for a family, but in these days of "upward
corporate mobility" it's not unusual for mid-level managers
to change domiciles routinely as new opportunities arise. Several
years ago, a private pilot moved his family and household goods
from California to New Jersey, then returned to the West Coast
to pick up his Bellanca 260A and bring it to its new home. Neither
he nor the airplane ever made it to New Jersey. Here's what happened:
The pilot phoned his wife at 0745 EDT (0445 PDT) on the day of
the accident to let her know he was leaving on the ferry flight.
During their conversation, he provided her with a lot of information
about the flight, including the intended route, the true airspeed
of the aircraft, his estimated time en route and flying time between
fuel stops. He did not, however, file any flight plans with Flight
When the pilot failed to arrive on time, his wife called the Teterboro
Flight Service Station. They issued an "information request"
to various FSSs along the proposed route of flight. That dispatch
resulted in no information about the aircraft, so an ALNOT (alert
notice) was issued. Flight service stations between California
and New Jersey responded, saying they had no contact with the
aircraft or pilot by phone or radio. The Salinas (Calif.) FSS,
the closest to the pilot's departure point, said that it had not
briefed the pilot or had any contact with the aircraft.
The following day, the wreckage of the aircraft was located about
two miles west of Pinehill, N.M. near the El Moro National Monument.
The crash site was 44 miles southeast of the VOR at Gallup, N.M.
and about 30 miles southwest of Grants Airport. The 41-year-old
pilot died in the crash.
Investigators interviewed the manager of Grants Airport about
weather conditions that existed in the area on the day of the
accident. He told them that, at noon, the ceilings and visibility
were low due to rain showers and scattered thunderstorms. A deputy
sheriff, whose home was about two miles from the crash site, said
he heard a "deep thud_a sudden, sharp noise" that didn't
sound like thunder during a "terrific thunderstorm"
that moved through the area around 1400.
A satellite photo taken just before noon showed heavy cloud cover
over New Mexico, and radar summary charts indicated light rain
showers and isolated thunderstorms throughout the state. The nearest
weather reporting point was Gallup, which recorded an estimated
1,500-foot broken ceiling, a 3,000-foot overcast and 15 miles'
visibility just before 1400.
The aircraft wreckage was scattered along a left-curving path
that was about a mile long. The left wing, which separated from
the aircraft in flight in positive overload, was located nearly
a mile from the main wreckage. The Bellanca's wing was constructed
entirely of wood, the components of which are bonded together
with glue and held under pressure until they dry. There was no
indication of a preexisting defect, such as poor bonding, wood
rot or delamination. Investigators determined that the airplane
was in a left bank when the wing failed and that the wing struck
the cockpit area before impact with the ground occurred.
The impact left a crater about two feet deep. The engine was found
in the bottom of the crater. Other pieces, such as the left aileron,
the left flap and the elevator trim tab, were found scattered
along the wreckage path.
Lack of Currency
The degree of cockpit destruction ruled out the recovery of any
information regarding the aircraft in flight or the operation
of its systems. Investigators tried to locate the aircraft's track
on recorded ATC radar tapes in an attempt to pin down the actual
time of the crash, but they could not do so.
About a month after the accident, an NTSB investigator received
an invoice from the pilot's wife. It was for fuel and three quarts
of oil the pilot purchased on the day of the accident at Flagstaff,
Ariz. A check with the bank card center showed that the purchase
was authorized at 1032. The distance from Flagstaff to the crash
site is 165 nautical miles, and the true airspeed of the aircraft
was estimated as approximately 170 knots. So, investigators believe
the crash occurred around noon.
The pilot was not instrument-rated. He had logged 127 of his 193
total hours in the Bellanca. He had only 2.6 hours of simulated
instrument time that probably went back to his student pilot training
three years earlier. His logbook indicated that he had not flown
the aircraft for four and a half months before the accident, and
that he did not have a "current" BFR (biennial flight
The aircraft was manufactured in May 1964. Total airframe time
was 982 hours, and there were 772 hours on the engine. Maintenance
records indicated that the last annual inspection was completed
19 months prior to the accident.
Above the Weather
Long cross-country flights, especially those involving multiple
stops for fuel, often compel a VFR pilot to deal with the dynamics
of several different weather systems before the final destination
is in sight. It is imperative that he or she be constantly aware
of the weather and any problems it might present. Yet there is
no record that this pilot ever checked the weather.
Did he watch the Weather Channel or some other TV weather program
before departing from California? We don't know, but I find it
hard to believe that he started on such a long trip without knowing
something about the weather along the way. It is also likely that
he may have planned to fly above any weather he might encounter.
VFR pilots must be cautious when flying above weather for any
great distance. What if a landing must be made due to a systems
failure or some other anomaly? The best chance the pilot has of
getting on the ground safely is if he can see the surface, locate
an airport and land there visually. Any instrument training a
pilot receives while working on his license is adequate only to
enable him to make a 180-degree turn on the gauges and return
to VFR weather should he get into IFR conditions inadvertently.
And if that skill is not maintained after the ticket is in the
pilot's pocket, chances are he will not be successful in completing
that simple maneuver, never mind trying to fly on the gauges for
any length of time.
Rare is it when a pilot can cross the entire country in one day
without running into weather somewhere along the route. It appears
that this pilot was intent on making the coast-to-coast flight
in one day. He got a very early start, departing from California
at approximately 0500. By the time he crossed the border of New
Mexico and Arizona, only 40 or so miles from the crash site, his
flight time was something over four hours. He had been awake for
at least seven hours. Perhaps the pilot was already feeling the
effects of a long day as he departed Flagstaff on the second leg
of his flight.
We can only speculate on what the Bellanca pilot may have been
thinking before the crash. First, his overall attitude about flying
appears to have been one of little consideration for the rules.
That he did not get a biennial flight review or have an annual
inspection of his airplane accomplished according to the rules
says a lot about his approach to his role as a pilot.
Missing the deadline for either a BFR or an annual inspection
could be considered an inadvertent oversight (certainly not an
excusable one). But missing two important deadlines indicates
other, deeper problems. It's possible that the cross-country move
played a part in the pilot's negligence, but there's no excuse
for not bringing himself and his airplane "up to speed"
before attempting the long trip.
Perhaps if the pilot had taken a BFR to "brush up" and
get current before the long flight, the instructor would have
put him under the hood long enough to alert him to the fact that
he could not fly the airplane solely by referring to the gauges.
It might have given him something to think about when he saw the
The fatal blow was the pilot's apparent disregard for flying in
the weather. It does not appear that he made a 180-degree turn
to get out of it. Certainly, he should have seen that the clouds
were thickening and growing in front of him. When it became apparent
that he couldn't climb above the weather or maintain VFR conditions,
he should have turned back to where the good weather was. The
weather report at Gallup indicated the presence of multiple layers
of clouds, and the weather back toward Flagstaff was good.
We don't know if he flew into a thunderstorm or simply lost control
of the airplane in instrument conditions. The airplane stalled
and spun or spiraled to the ground, exceeding its design limitations
and coming apart before impact.
The pilot's knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of the weather conditions
is important in this accident. Did he know there was weather over
New Mexico and elect to try to get above it or fly through it?
We have to assume that he had some sort of idea what was going
on along the route of flight, even if that information did not
come from traditional and legal aviation weather sources. Perhaps
he heard that there was a chance of rain showers and thunderstorms,
and figured that meant VFR conditions aloft.
Maybe his attitude was simply: "I'll go look and see what's
out there. If it gets ugly, I'll turn back." That's a bad
idea in most cases, because too many pilots hesitate to turn back
or wait too long to make the lifesaving turn when they do encounter
weather. And, too often, that "look-see" attitude is
nothing more than a shill. It really means: "I'm going at
What do we have to do to convince VFR pilots that they can't fly
in instrument conditions? There are too many accidents each year
involving pilots who have no business being out in weather that
is forecast to be bad. It can be argued that some of them "got
caught," but it's obvious that many of these accidents result
from conscious actions by the pilots-in-command. No, they don't
set out to kill themselves or their passengers, but they do intentionally
fly into weather conditions they can't handle. They know the weather
is there, and they know that VFR flight is impossible; but they
It's up to each of us to examine our motivations. Rules and regulations
in any endeavor are established to reduce some of the risks involved
in the activity. Some people believe the rules are too stringent
or for some reason don't apply to their situations, and they don't
obey them. In aviation, as we have seen countless times, that
type of attitude can kill you.
As student pilots, we are taught the importance of complying with
the laws. There's little doubt that each person, when he or she
receives their private pilot certificate, understands what they
are allowed to do and what they must avoid doing. In addition
to the legal ramifications, the safety aspects are well-explained.
Yet too many of us get into situations where there is little hope
On Your Own
It's often low-time pilots who find themselves in the predicament.
They're eager to fly, having just received their licenses. The
traffic pattern has less interest for them now that they can go
wherever they want to go without having to talk it over with their
flight instructor first.
One such accident involved a 126-hour pilot who was not instrument-rated.
He was flying a Piper Arrow back home to Richlands, Va. from Hickory,
N.C. one night when the aircraft struck high terrain about 1.5
miles from his destination.
A witness at the destination airport reported to investigators
that the aircraft departed three hours earlier on the first leg
of the flight. About 45 minutes after the aircraft left, fog began
forming. When the accident occurred, the visibility was zero.
The pilot asked ATC for radar vectors to the airport. He asked
for confirmation that he was directly over his destination, and
the controller told him he was. There were no more transmissions
from the pilot. The terrain the airplane struck was about 500
feet above the airport elevation. Apparently, the pilot was trying
to descend below the fog to locate the airport. He should have
known about the high terrain close to the airport.
Fog is dangerous, especially to low-time pilots who don't understand
how deceptive it can be. Ground lights may be visible from directly
overhead that give the appearance of good visibility. Perhaps
the pilot did see some lights and thought he saw the airport.
He may have been trying to position himself to land. Maybe he
didn't see anything and decided to try to get below the cloud
deck; if so, he couldn't have known precisely where he was in
relation to the terrain.
When the Arrow and Bellanca pilots voluntarily flew into the clouds,
their fates were sealed. They didn't have to do that. The Arrow
pilot could have climbed back to a safe altitude and, with ATC's
help, flown somewhere else where VFR conditions prevailed. The
Bellanca pilot could have maintained VFR by making a 180-degree
turn and heading for better weather.
It's certainly not only low-time pilots who get into trouble with
weather. Sometimes, experienced instrument pilots find themselves
in the same predicament. The airplanes they are flying may not
be instrument-certified or have the equipment needed for a particular
approach, so they attempt the same thing the Arrow pilot did.
They may be in an area where they are below ATC's radio and radar
coverage, and can't get an IFR clearance. There are all kinds
of reasons why a pilot may choose to fly in the clouds illegally,
but if he or she winds up dead, they don't mean anything.
We'll never know any more about why the Bellanca or Arrow pilots
made the decisions they did. Would they do it differently if they
had another chance? That's something to mull over before you get
into your airplane for the next flight. What will you do if you
see clouds ahead or become trapped above a fog or cloud layer?
Turn around? Call and recheck the weather? Is your mind absolutely
made up that without an instrument rating and a properly equipped
airplane, you will remain in VFR conditions, even if it means
an early landing and a waiting period on the ground?
The two accidents we've discussed offer some potentially lifesaving
lessons for each of us.