Senator’s Cherokee Crashed On Takeoff


On Thursday, the NTSB released its preliminary report on an Oct. 1 plane crash in Moab that killed North Dakota Senator Doug Larsen and his family.

According to the report, the aircraft collided with a hill shortly after takeoff before crashing into the ground about a half-mile away from the runway. At the time of the takeoff roll, the pilot-controlled runway lights were not illuminated.

Security footage showed the aircraft, a Piper PA-28-140, landing at the Canyonlands Regional Airport (KCNY) in Moab, Utah, around 5:47 p.m. An FBO employee stated he saw the pilot take on 27 gallons of fuel from the self-serve fuel island before parking the aircraft and borrowing the courtesy car for a few hours.

The report states the four occupants returned and boarded the airplane around 8:11 p.m. A witness reported it was very dark outside with no illumination from the moon. The witness said after the aircraft took off, it banked steeply to the right and then appeared to lose altitude. ADS-B data corroborated the witness’ statement, showing the aircraft climb to 200 feet during the right turn after takeoff before descending.

According to the NTSB, a “examination of the engine revealed no mechanical malfunctions or failures that would have precluded normal operations.”

A clear indication of what caused the crash was not available. The NTSB will release a final report later.

Report_WPR24FA002_193168_11_3_2023 1_29_10 PM

Amelia Walsh
Amelia Walsh is a private pilot who enjoys flying her family’s Columbia 350. She is based in Colorado and loves all things outdoors including skiing, hiking, and camping.

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  1. 5500′ density altitude, full fuel, 4 passengers, in a PA28-140?

    There is an old saying about Grumman Travelers that they have comfortable seating for 4 full size adults; you can’t take off, but you can seat them fine.

    • I owned a 108hp ’72 AA-1A. It’d do OK with one aboard but couldn’t get out of its way at Edwards AFB on a hot day.

      • The first plane I took my parents for a ride in after I got my license was a PA-28-140. Where they lived was about an hour and 45 minutes away so I was able to burn off some fuel before I took off. That was the first time I had flown it near gross takeoff weight and it does not have good performance. The 140s and 150s are noticeably under powered. If it really was four adults and full fuel there is no way it was under max gross weight.

          • Kids? At almost 6000′ DA they feel like blocks of cement when trying to climb a Cherokee 140. At sea level you can fudge 200 pounds without a problem; not so in the mountains…

      • I agree. That’s why the O-320 STC for the AA-1(X) series came about. It makes a huge difference because the added power is excess. The bigger engine can’t fully compensate for the rather stubby wing, but it helps a lot. It also helps to have a prop pitch biased more toward climb that cruise. You lose a little speed, but it is more reassuring on takeoff, and you can climb higher to take advantage of tailwinds with the greater RPM.

    • Seems the most likely cause at a glance. I operated a PA-28-161 at close to gross weight once in flight school, luckily we were in flatland at a density altitude of under 1,500lb. A Cherokee 140 is one of those planes that is basically a 4 seater in name only, I bet with full fuel and your statistical average by weight American couple in the front seats, you’re already outside of limits.

      • I used to fly a C172 in Okla summertime. Never had flown it with more than myself and one other person. Loaded two large others into the backseat. Headed down the runway, at about my usual rotation time eased the yoke back. To my serious surprise, the nosewheel lifted off the runway and the two mains just stayed there rolling along. Was my first density altitude experience. C172s and PA28, just not four place airplanes really.

    • “Comfortable” seating for 4 would be a stretch! Did you ever sit in the back seat of a 1966 Cherokee? (I had a -235)

    • You make me scratch my head, and it’s not from an itch. How did we get from a PA-28-140 to a Grumman Traveller, and why are you focusing on that airplane? You could state the same performance cautions for almost any non-complex single engine 4-seater. We don’t even know if this was a weight issue or a disorientation situation.

    • I agree with you Cameron, it’s not NVFR if you don’t have any visual reference. I have experienced this disorientation at night with an instructor onboard. Given also with the aircraft at MTOW the margin for error reduces significantly.

  2. Private (i.e. GA) pilots do not operate to airline standards. These preventable crashes will continue to occur until pilots are held accountable. A drive in the family plane, even a trip around the pattern, is in no way even remotely similar to driving to the store to get a loaf of bread and a half gallon of milk. Until that basic concept is drilled into every student pilot’s head, we’ll continue to read about these preventable crashes. Only after this has become an unconscious deep belief system, can the student go about employing mitigation strategies: thorough checklisted preflights, checklisted climbs, checklisted cruises, checklisted descents etc.; rigorous no expense spared 100 hour inspections and preventative maintenances; and mandatory four or five point harnesses for everyone on board, and/or Amsafe airbags.

    • Good points Rich, but even with all the above mitigation strategies employed GA ops will never be to airline standards.

      • Hi John: GA will probably not reach airline standards, but imho it’s a worthy goal. I’m not alone in this way of thinking. There are more than several YouTube videographers who promote the same idea: that every single time one fly’s one must adhere to a rigorous and thorough thought process of anticipating and planning how to mitigate and/or avoid serious crashes…especially on the takeoff roll and up to at least 1,000 feet AGL. Making that more difficult is that many GA aircraft are not especially crashworthy, especially those designed and manufactured beginning in the late 1930’s and through the 1940’s…that are still being manufactured. (hopefully MOSAIC will address this structural issue and provide the regulatory permissions for designer/manufacturers to create aircraft with more crash prevention structure). So far, Diamond, seems to be the possibly only company that has addressed these structural concerns, at least in the certified world.

    • Alarmist rhetoric. First of all, GA fatalities have been fairly reliably decreasing for at least 20 years. While higher quality training is a laudable goal and probably a doable one, GA cannot and will not operate to airline standards because it cannot exist that way. GA is already more of a rich man’s playground with every passing year, climbing out of the grasp of the middle class like a shiny new creation of a millionaire youtuber. If we start inspecting aircraft that aren’t built to airliner standards like they’re airliners, it’ll be a wonderful world for people who can spend a couple million on a personal plane, and the junkyards will be full of planes formerly owned by people like me. Well, maybe not me, I don’t have one yet because I can’t exactly afford anything north of a sub 80hp postwar two seater.

      • Look at Ercoupes. Fun and affordable. Try for a C-90. On a hot California summer day (95f+) with just me (177 lbs) I can still climb out at 500 fpm and cruise nicely at 100 mph. A great community of owners also. Check out ercoupe or org (Ercoupe Owners Club).Good luck!

      • We already over build and test aircraft and parts. That’s why we are mostly flying antiques and why counterfeit parts are so common. That’s why a Senator is flying an antique, underpowered plane.

    • Rich, I would suggest that rigorous checklists and conditioned procedures contributed to the crash. A hundred bucks says that he followed his checklist slowly and completely. That means that he completed the checklist perfectly as written and then took of……full rich…..just as the checklist said to do.

      Drilling in rote memorization instead of teaching students to think is so much easier: I just don’t think that it prepares pilots for the dynamic conditions of flight.

      • Arthur, can read this post fine on my iPad, but the previous from you is scrunched up 2 letters to a line. Just to let you know.

    • Since that’s not really a useful idea, as great as it might sound, perhaps we could examine some unnecessary factors and figure out how to address them? After all, it’s a game of percentages not absolutes. I’m pretty sure telling people not to crash is done, yet it still happened.

      I don’t know about the Senator, but was he really trained adequately to use a plane for travel? Did he have an instrument rating? The US is alone in virtually expecting pilots planning to travel with their plane to get an instrument rating. Then, they have to spend big bucks and time on keeping current because flying has gotten too expensive and planes are now parked far from homes. Did he ever take a mountain flying course? Maybe the curriculum and regulations we have were designed more to assign blame than educate?

      And why is a Senator, one of the .001 percent of powerful people in this country flying an antique with poor crashworthiness and low power? With 4 people cross country? Did he really have a love of the simplicity and beauty of the old 140 or was a new plane a problematic purchase even though it wasn’t when the 140 was built. Why?

      • He was a member of the N. Dakota state senate, and construction business owner. I suspect that his Cherokee, like for most of us, was as much airplane as he could justify owning. One rarely gets rich in state office. They were on their way home, so weather and schedules could have exerted pressure to continue. A sad, but too often repeated, story in the end.

        The photo of the accident aircraft does not show the usual damage associated with a full stall-spin, so I wonder if he recovered from an incipient spin (sharp right turn) with insufficient altitude, and pancaked into the hill.

        • That would have been a good argument if he had bought the plane new like a presumably successful construction business owner could have done when it was new. It’s now half a century later and this is all he can afford is an indictment of the FAA, not an excuse. At least it ought to be.

  3. Can mostly understand why some countries require an IFR ticket to fly at night. On some nights, I would say it is the only way to takeoff and not kill yourself.

  4. Naive or hubris? The planned flight was such a slog- I fail to see how one could’ve carried out such a long mission in such a slow plane. I know the aircraft and our NAS can certainly handle long trips like this, but not the pilot. I’d be too tired and/or bored to be at my A-game. In 40 years of flying I only took two 5+ hour trips and they sucked the joy and energy of flying.

  5. The above comments regarding more rigorous standards withstanding, we’re deal with the basics in this incident… likely over max gross weight. Shocking how many pilots have a caviler attitude about W&B. “Ah, the manufactures uses overly conservative number” or “If the door closes on the payload it will fly. High density altitude like 5,500 obviously robs power, but power is further lost if mixture is not set right as well.

  6. Well over 20 years ago Flying magazine published an “Operating Manual for the Application of Common Sense” (or similar) which suggested voluntary limitations and margins to improve safety. It seems there’s still a need for that (and – though I am not in any way familiar with current training practices – a lack of sense being instilled on young pilots that while GA rules allow quite a lot it is not always wise to do what’s allowed).

  7. Sounds more like spatial disorientation to me. The article says he climbed 200 feet. That’s way above ground effect. I’m thinking a black hole effect, lack of visual references in a nose-high attitude.

  8. This accident is an unnecessary tragedy. Where I live in Johannesburg, South Africa at 5,500 feet ASL, the 140 is a 2 seater. Even at sea level I wouldn’t do more that 3 up.

  9. X-Country ….in the mountains … night….in a heavy Cherokee 140….. and after burning two hours of day-light riding around Moab in the crew car! If I didn’t know better I would say this guy hated himself and his family.

    A few years ago I presented PRM, Passenger Resource Management, to AOPA’s Richard McSpadden and to the FAA Safety Team that I belong too. Richard thought my proposal would cause too many divorces and the FAAST Team embraced the concept of passenger input. PRM gives passengers enough knowledge to know they can have input into the go/no-go decision process. In this case all the mom needed to know was their duty-day was already long enough. She needed to know that even good people that you trust can make bad decisions when tired.

    This accident is heartbreaking and was so needless.

    • Sounds like you assume that PRM will “NO GO” a flight due to things like duty-day restrictions.
      Non-aviation passengers employing PRM are more likely to push “GET THERE-ITIS” than “NO GO”.
      Poor idea, IMHO.

      • Gwen, thank you for your comment. I am not suggesting duty time regulations for private pilots. I am only suggesting the passengers of private pilots understand that there are consequences to flying when tired. Take a look at the accident of N733CD. I call this accident “Gavin’s Story”. Gavin was 7 years old son (along with his mom and grandfather) who perished because of his fathers bad decision to fly a long night cross country after a long hard day at work. This accident was totally preventable. Mom could have stepped up and said “No” with just a little bit of knowledge of reality. Of course fatigue wasn’t the only issue with this accident. The pilot wasn’t qualified for the night flight (or even a day flight carrying pax) as near as I can tell. But 15 minutes of training about fatigue could have saved Gavin and the family. All mom would have had to say is “let’s go in the morning you have had a long day”. Frankly, sometimes the pilot is looking for someone else to make the decision to take the burden off oneself.

        PRM is a hard concept for many to get their arms around. I know because I have been talking about it for 4 years. There has been a lot of pushback, even from Richard.

  10. I believe this plane had a 180 hp engine installed. Not sure if that increases the gross weight, but it would be much better than a stock 140. My guess is that the most likely cause was spatial disorientation on a very dark night.

  11. AVweb Moab, Ut plane crash Oct 1, 2023
    Once again, we look for all kinds of reasons, like what did the pilot do wrong, but we don’t look at all the atmospheric conditions that are available to us. First there was a front passing through the area at the time of this crash. This front was even noted on a Surface Weather Map the morning of October 1, 2023, and can even be seen on Zoom Earth satellite views at the time of the accident. We have known for a long time that fronts cause strong winds, hail, and even tornadoes all of which happened later the next day, in the same area. And there was a 73 to 95-knot Jet Stream around the crash site. I note this High Velocity Overhead Jet stream (HVOJS) because my research has found that is the HVOJS required to turn a mesocyclone into a tornado. This same thing caused a Cessna 414A to crash on April 7, 2015, while attempting to land at the Central Illinois Regional airport. Once again there was a front passing through and there was a HVOJS enough to create a weak tornado. In fact, later that day tornadoes formed from the same front. Just think what could happen to a plane’s flight path if it flew into a vortex, it is anyone guess. Read my book and you will understand, titled: Science About How Tornadoes And Vortexes Form And How They Are Causing Planes To Crash (Including MH370) available from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
    Ronald B. Hardwig, Professional Engineer

  12. Everyone wants to find something that removes responsibility from the pilot. My opinion in this case is the pilot was the problem. Making a decision to take off in the dark with that airplane in that condition from that airport, is not a failure of training or process. It is nothing more than a series of very poor decisions.

    We need to admit that GA has a problem in as much as often the folks who join us as pilots are often temperamentally unsuited for it. I hate to admit it, but the FAA might be on to something with their “Five Dangerous Attitudes” thing. I can’t see how any reasonable person who was ever capable of passing the Private Pilot Knowledge test and check ride would ever have done as the pilot here did. I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, but this guy was dangerously stupid. I’d like to have said that in a more generous manner, but I don’t write well enough to get there.

    No amount of training is ever going to keep people from making stupid decisions. It’s sad but we all know it’s true. I don’t believe that we’ll ever minimize them either – at least not beyond what we have. The idea that we can effect GA safety to the point that our efforts 100% eliminate all negative events is foolish. There will always be accidents and some people are going to die. I for one do not want to give up freedom so someone else can control my safety. No one wants to die and most of us will do what’s necessary to avoid it – on our own recognizance.

  13. The pilot was a Lt. Col. in the ND Army National Guard, in command of an aviation battalion. If I have the right airman registry entry in front of me, he held commercial ratings for ASEL, helicopters, instrument airplane and helicopter, and Blackhawks.

    Cherokee 7153R had a 180hp conversion.

    To me, this tragic accident appears to be a spatial disorientation incident into a black hole night sky, moonless, no visible horizon, desert area.

  14. In addition, ND State Senator Larsen was an Army Lt Colonel Aviator who completed rotary wing training in October 2006. He received a commercial-instrument rotorcraft rating upon graduation.

    He served in the ND Army National Guard. As a captain, Larsen deployed to Iraq 2009-2010 as an aviation company commander (UH-60 Blackhawks). In 2016, he took command of an aviation battalion as an Army Guard Major.

    No stranger to Aviation — and he also had recently obtained his SEL, MEL, Commercial Certificate/Instrument current.

    Larsen taxied to runway 21, paused momentarily on the runway, and then departed about
    2023 hours. The pilot-controlled runway lights were not illuminated at the time of the takeoff roll. He activated his nose bowl mounted lading light.

    Take-off procedure calls for:

    Rwy 21, climbing right turn to 6700 on OAB R-298–
    …Climbing right turn to 10000 direct OAB VOR/DME. Continue climb in holding to 10000 at OAB VOR/DME (northwest, left turn, 118° inbound) before proceeding on course.

    He crashed upon making the initial climbing right turn after achieving an altitude no higher than 200 feet AGL approximately.

    In addition; regarding his wife: In a December 2020 Facebook post, Larsen noted his wife had flown “her first flight as a pilot.”
    ” The post included a picture of a small, orange yellow J-3 Cub type plane.”

  15. I’m not familiar with that airport but I know there are many places in the west that are black holes, like the ocean. In the Bahamas, there is no night VFR allowed for that reason.

  16. These later comments have changed my view somewhat. The turbulence comments are interesting. I have taken off in a high field with a down vortex and my plane tilted about 80 degrees. At night, that would have been character building.