Controllers Concerned About Pilot’s Welfare Before Crash


A prominent personal injury attorney killed in the crash of his TBM 850 told an obviously concerned controller that “everything’s fine” just before the aircraft apparently dove to the ground near Pembroke, New York, just east of Buffalo, on Friday night. Steve Barnes, 61, a former partner in Cellino and Barnes, which does extensive television advertising, and his niece were killed in the crash after a series of missed communications between controllers and Barnes. At one point, a Buffalo controller asks “everyone OK up there?” before the assurance from Barnes. Various controllers from different facilities had been trying to get hold of the aircraft as it cruised at 28,000 feet on an IFR flight plan from Manchester, New Hampshire, to Buffalo. As the aircraft approached Buffalo, Barnes contacted Buffalo Approach and said he’d lost communications with Boston Center and was headed for Buffalo. He appears to be alert and lucid on the tapes.

Barnes was told to descend to 8,000 and maintain altitude before being vectored direct to the airport but as the aircraft neared the airport, it took an unauthorized hard right turn and communications were lost. He was told to stop his descent and to maintain 10,000 feet but Barnes did not respond further. The last call by the controller was to “stop your descent, level your wings, maintain any altitude.” The NTSB and FAA are investigating.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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    • That presumes it wasn’t hypoxia or CO poisoning and someone on board had the state of mind to activate it.

      • The Garmin autoland stuff is tied in with the hypoxia detection features of the panel. If you’re unresponsive, it will automatically engage first the descent, then an autoland.

        Not sure it would have made a difference here, as he was seemingly controlling the plane until late in the sequence, so the hypoxia detection system would probably never have triggered. Still, if he had some kind of medical event but his niece was still alert, she might have been able to trigger it if she recognized what was happening.

    • I’ll amend your suggestion with the type of experience. I’m studying aircraft automation, with an emphasis upon pilot reliance on those systems. Newer aircraft are lavishly equipped with ‘suites’ of displays that provide pilots with copious amounts of data, and are coupled to autopilots to enhance navigation and aircraft handling. The way some of these fatal events are brought about may factor a lack of manual piloting skills, even in VMC. The Cirrus tragedy in Houston, where the pilot couldn’t complete a landing approach after 3 tries, and wound up stalling and spinning the plane during the third go-around, begs this question: Why?! The Cessna 414 mishap at Santa Ana has similar implications. Though some say the plane lost an engine, that doesn’t mean it will fall out the sky. (I’ve got more Aztec Single Engine time than with both motors chugging) I don’t believe the NTSB will delve too deeply into this topic, so conjecture and research is the best I can hope for.

    • No, but he was relatively new to aviation, bought a very complex aircraft, was on a night flight, descending, and things went bad in a hurry during a turn. That is why it reminded me of the JFK Jr crash.

      • Pilots who buy or operate these planes are checked out thoroughly before they’re allowed to fly them as PIC. They’re practically Type Rated. This is because of insurance, and to prevent the aircraft manufacturer from exposure to lawsuits for selling complex planes to untrained pilot/owners. A famous baseball player’s widow took Cessna to task for her husband’s untimely death. The demise of JFK Jr. was a classic Spatial Disorientation episode. I’ll bet the NTSB has a parrot they’ll coach to repeat the probable cause spiel for such mishaps. (You’ll also see predictable P.C. verbiage for Cessna 170 landing mishaps.) My suggestion to reduce the number of these accidents is to provide trained pilots the means to climb or descend through IMC to VFR Conditions On Top or below cloud decks with a rating that is short of a full Instrument Rating. In this manner, pilots who arrive at Point B on top of a broken or overcast layer will not have to illegally descend through those clouds, or search desperately for a hole while the fuel needle flirts with the empty line. (And who hasn’t experienced such a scenario?) Rather, they can receive a clearance to descend via VOR Radial or a simple heading/vector until they’re below the cloud base. There are some wrinkles to iron out, but once they are, I’ll venture to guess this scheme will help reduce the number of these tragedies.

        • Since mechanical issues were not suspected, that means that the pilot allowed a perfectly good airplane to crash. Making planes “more good” does not seem to address the issue.

        • Not as thorough as you might think. I still see candidates pass check rides who should never have at the big sim training outfits. Sooner or later the insurance companies are going to set even higher training standards than the FAA or just stop doing business altogether with GA. The latest insurance rate increases could get much worse if the accidents keep happening.

    • I’ve never seen such an erratic speed record on any other flights from FlightAware. His previous flights all had the smooth speed recording that we expect to see. This suggests a problem with some part of his system.
      The lack of communication and him not starting his descent on time may suggest hypoxia.