Cross-Country Without a Clue

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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.

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 Service.

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.

Scattered Storms

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 review).

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.

What-Ifs

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 weather ahead.

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 all costs."

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 go anyway.

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 of survival.

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.

Sealed Fate

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.