Updated: Texas Midair Collision Claims Caravan Cargo Pilot And ‘Paraglider’

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Details are still sketchy after a fatal midair collision today (Dec. 21) between a Martinaire Cessna 208B Grand Caravan cargo plane and what is initially being reported as a “paraglider.” According to FlightAware data, the Caravan departed from George Bush Intercontinental/Houston Airport (KIAH) at 9:11 am local time, headed for Victoria Regional Airport (KVCT)—a planned 39-minute flight to the southwest. Three minutes after reaching 4,800 feet at 9:22, the track shows a steep descent beginning near the Brazos River, over the town of Fulshear, Texas, where the wreckage of the Caravan came to rest. Both pilots were killed.

The FlightAware history on the Caravan shows regular daily round-trip flights between Victoria Regional Airport and KIAH.

Given the elevation in the area (less than 100 feet mean sea level) and the Caravan’s reported altitude, it’s possible that it was actually a powered parachute, or possibly an ultralight with a ballistic parachute, involved in the collision. That victim’s body was found some five kilometers south of the Caravan’s wreckage, according to the early reports from the Texas Department of Public Safety – Southwest Region.

This story will be updated as more information comes out.

Update (December 23):

The Fort Bend County (Texas) Medical Examiner’s Office has identified the pilot of the Cessna Grand Caravan as Robert Steven Gruss, 35. The pilot of the other aircraft has not yet been identified. Television news reports are now showing that the second victim’s body was found near the crash site of the Caravan, while the wreckage of the second aircraft and what appears to be a recovery parachute were found four miles to the south.

Just before the collision, Air Traffic Control audio recorded Gruss asking for confirmation of his altitude assignment of 5,000 feet “for opposite direction traffic.” The controller responded, “I’ll have higher in just a bit here,” subsequently clearing the flight to 6,000 feet, but getting no further response from Gruss. The collision site appears to be in Class E airspace, west of the Houston Class B.

A statement from UPS confirmed that the Martinaire-operated Caravan was carrying UPS packages under contract.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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34 COMMENTS

    • Arthur, while that may seem like a reasonable comment, you should bear in mind that the semicircular rule to which you refer is not applicable in controlled airspace below 18,000′. You just fly the ATC-assigned altitud. Easterly, westerly? Doesn’t matter. Generally you’re expected to FILE according to the semicircular rule, but I doubt our unfortunate Caravan pilot had reached his filed altitude.

  1. confused by your comment, given a beautiful day, (s)he was likely 4500 VFR Westbound… presumably having opted out of IFR. Otherwise, if the goal was 5000′ IFR, it was presumably an assigned altitude… or VFR on top at 4500. The question it raises, since its been a long time since I’ve checked non-jet traffic, is FlightAware 29.92 normalized? Or was there a delta between departure and takeoff pressures? I’m pretty sure your altimeter always reports 29.92 altitude and ATC adjusts on their scopes based on a pressure setting, but I was never ATC. That said, I can only imagine my surprise to find a powered paraglider at 4500′. I mourn both pilots. See and avoid is an obligation, but sometimes its hard to see other planes, let alone a guy in a paraglider.

    • I would think that FlightAware displays the Mode C altitude information as reported by the aircraft. That is what ATC sees on their display. Their is no altitude adjustment made by the ATC display. Correct Mode C information requires the pilot to set the altimeter to the correct pressure for the area they are operating in. Altimeter setting 29.92 is the standard setting at or above FL180.

  2. There are paragliders, parachutes, and pure gliders in that area; but that is irrelevant to running up the tail of a paraglide that has the right of way. Not sure why (if they fly that rout often) they were not hyper aware of the stuff that has been known to pop up over there. It’s a sad thing.

  3. It is always those who resist or opt not to have a transponder that need it most. If you’re one of those, do us (fellow pilots, passengers, ATC, and people below) a favor and go get one – and learn how to use it.

    • I’m unaware of a way to implement ADS-B out on a paraglider or other Part 103 vehicle. Portable ADS-B out has been approved in Austrailia and Europe, but the FAA seems to want only installed systems. Also, ADS-B transmits an N-number and Part 103 don’t have N-numbers. Hence, I’m not sure it is legally possible for Part 103 paragliders to transmit ADS-B. I hope this will eventually change with the push for transponders on UAS.

      In the meantime, we all need to use eyeballs. In my paraglider, I have amazing visibility, and I can even hear traffic coming. However, it is admittedly difficult to dodge fast-moving traffic at 22 knots; for all practical purpuses, I’m a stationary item.

    • Then there are those who own legacy non-engine-driven electrical aircraft that can’t run a transponder due to the power required and the limits of using a total-waste battery onboard. The ADS-B mandate has within it’s language requirements that make it virtually impossible for non engine-driven electrical aircraft to equip or comply and requests from owners of these aircraft and AOPA for accommodation to allow equipage have been answered by the FAA with crickets. So even if a Aeronca or Luscombe without electrical system wanted to add equipment to be a good airspace neighbor the FAA has all but trumped that. And as pointed out by David Shelton the same equipage rules eliminate powered paragliders from doing the same.

  4. That airspace has enough traffic I doubt he wasn’t at least on flight following. There used to be a soaring club in the area, and there is an airpark with a grass strip. Also, a flight school is very active out of Sugarland.

    I’m not aware of how a paraglider gets that high at 9 in the morning from flat ground. Of course, I don’t know anything about para gliders other than they look like fun.

  5. Confusion in ‘victim’ – two in the Caravan smoking pile, is the one found some distance away _guessed_ by you to be a person operating a paraglider or such?

    And improper speculation about crew of Caravan. Shame!

  6. The limitations of see-and-avoid have been conclusively demonstrated thousands of times, and although invariably the incidents draw comments from pilots who attest, or at least imply, that THEY would hav avoided the collision, the reality we will continue to have them as long as human-controlled flight continues.

    Having unexpectedly had moderately close encounters with both powered and unpowered parachutes a couple of times I can attest they don’t exactly jump out in your scan until they are uncomfortably close. Not quite as bad as the drifting helium balloons that elicit a “Whoa!!” exclamation as they flash past, but close.

  7. At the time of the accident it was a clear and bright, sunny day. Unfortunately under those conditions flashing LED lights would probably wash out and not be very visible. The accident area is just outside the mode C and class B airspace for the combined IAH/Houston Hobby class B. It is a pretty busy area with two nearby class D airports with a couple flight schools, a glider port and a private strip used by ultralights and similar craft. There are also several approach lanes crossing the area that funnel into the western approach corridor for IAH. Those have a floor of 6,000 feet, so ATC likes to keep non-commercial planes below that altitude until outside the class B. From the ATC information it sounds like that may have been the case for the Caravan. Not knowing what type of “plane” the other aircraft was, it is difficult to speculate on whether he should have been that high. That particular day was the first really nice weather for the Houston area in about 10 days, so it was probably tempting to get up and enjoy it. A tragic accident no matter the circumstances.

  8. I have two disproportionate fears in aviation.

    One is power lines. I do a bit of backcountry and canyon flying and these are always on my personal radar.

    The other is parachutes/hang gliders, and the like.

    God forbid.

    I feel so bad for all involved in this accident.

  9. Site is described as ‘near Fulshear’, https://www.flyingmag.com/cessna-caravan-and-paraglider-collide-mid-air-in-texas/ has aviation sectional with Fulshear on right side under curved wide dark line, a 465 foot hill to the right, glider activity warning is well to the southwest of there, parachuting warning well to the west of there.

    Victoria TX airport is of significant size, may be smaller in the area. 9111 foot main runway.

    (Trivia – layout looks like triangular one popular for training in WWII – it was an Army pilot training base, also used to train jet fighter pilots for the Korean War.)

  10. Related to the powered parachute side of this discussion is this video: https://youtu.be/L1Z8YT6w7Rc
    It was posted by a Part 103 flyer who went for a personal best altitude record (17,500 feet) with his chute, and with the possible exception of violating the “10,000 feet and above” cloud clearance requirements of 1000 feet above & below and 5 miles laterally seems to have been a entirely “legal” flight.

    If you watch the video, there is a sequence showing his takeoff (filmed by his wife/girlfriend, presumably) in which he is shown flying away from the camera. Worth noting is the extremely small visible cross-section he & his rig presents from that angle; the parachute is essentially just a thin line with its cords & lines invisible, below which his body/engine/propeller are a small and unobtrusive blob. Approaching this at, say, 300 knots, a pilot’s eyes would likely provide only a few seconds to react. Radar, ADS-B and see & avoid all are nullities in the equation and all that remains to save the day is the “big sky”. Which is enough….usually.

  11. There are at least four piles of wreckage, appearing to me larger than a paraglider would be.

    One is a burnt pile spread across a laneway.
    Another appears unburnt, some structure recognizeable, but with dirt scattered, might be a different view of one of the burnt piles, that view has what looks like a bit of lettering and a blue stripe on structure. (Scattered dirt could be misinterpreted as burnt wreckage, and one aerial view may have a tree beside a road looking like part of the wreckage – the ground view with unburnt wreckage and garbage cans in the background shows a tree at the edge of a road, aerial view of seemingly burnt areas shows whre.)
    Another is unburnt, much structure smashed up, distributed over length.
    Another is a wing in a horse pasture, appearing to include de-icing boots and flaps, with what may be tubular structure at one end.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cessna_208_Caravan has views of top and bottom of wing.

    And a parachute on its own apparently. A different view of the parachute suggests it might be rectangular though plain white would surprise me – demo jumpers such as my brother liked colour, could be just the way round canopy settled on the ground.

  12. I see no way around this. (No pun intended.)

    In all my years of flying, I’ve had five near-hits – that I know about. Probably ten (or more) that I don’t know about. In my case, I can truly say that the Grace of God saved me.

    Look, it’s just plain hard to see – and process – other aircraft/drones/things in the air. And I expect that it’s the processing that takes the longest amount of time.

    First, from a purely physiological perspective, my experience says that you can’t acquire most GA targets until they’re within a mile of you. How much less a paraglider?

    Second, assuming your eyes are pointed in the right direction at the right time during your scan (there’s 20 seconds right there) your brain has to know in advance what you’re looking for.

    For example, as I young pilot on an IFR lesson, flying home at 3 am, I had to wake up my Flight Instructor to ask him what that big bright object coming at us was.

    It was the moon rising in clouds. I had never seen that before. Like an optical illusion, my brain didn’t know how to process the image.

    Same the first time you see the Goodyear blimp in the air. “What is that thing?”

    Third, even if you know what you’re looking for, our eyes don’t detect “stationary” targets very well. (Which is why, in a fight, a jab works better than a hook.)

    For example, I was racing a guy in another Glasair. After he won, we broke formation and flew back to Lakeland independently. When I heard him on Tower announcing the same position and altitude as mine, I started scanning like crazy. I didn’t see him for, like, 20 seconds. And then, suddenly, my brain clicked and there he was, normal size, about 200 feet to the side, quartering right, a little lower, but my same speed. (That is, no relative movement.)

    We pride ourselves on spotting traffic when we fly – but I bet most of us are spotting moving targets, which, by their relative motion, don’t pose an immediate threat to us. Our eyes are good at seeing moving targets. Not the ones that get you.

    Fourth, it’s very difficult to pick targets out of ground clutter (at least when over suburbia) or even a clear blue sky. (Again, harder when no apparent motion.) Much easier on overcast days when targets appear black.

    And even if you see a (stationary) target, it takes the eyes (and brain) a few seconds of sampling to determine if the target is 1) close and 2) getting larger or not.

    As to 1), it ought to be easy to miss the Goodyear blimp, since it’s speed is so slow relative to yours. But your brain has no idea what size that “thing” out there is. Your brain can only calculate the distance if it knows how big a blimp is when you’re up close. (It’s amazing how fast one can come up on hot air balloons, even though you can spot them easily from a distance.)

    As to 2), flying NW over Tehachapi, a couple thousand feet over the ridge, a T-Tail Lance coming at us, 12 o’clock, slightly lower. (I think we were fling the appropriate VFR altitude. I don’t know what he was doing, but hemispherical rule might not have applied, being less than 3000′ AGL.) Closing speed about 300 kts.

    The first thing your brain has to figure out is “Is he coming at me or is he going away?” This appears to be logarithmic for collisions. (There’s a poster from the Military about how long it takes to spot a fighter coming at you. Size doesn’t change much until it’s too late.) It takes me a few seconds to figure this out.

    Which means that I should treat all targets as a threat and start evasive action.

    Which I do.

    But then it takes me a few seconds to decide that evasive action to take. (Assuming that he’s not taking evasive action too.)

    I’ve worked out different scenarios in my head while arm-chair flying of what I would do if … but still, it seems to take forever to take evasive action, and even longer to see if that action will save the day. That’s because there’s no reference point from which to gain perspective when you’re up the sky. (“It’s he taking evasive action too, climbing? Yikes!)

    This is especially evident at night, trying to avoid someone in a black hole, with no reference points, using just two Nav lights as a reference. I bet the Fight Pilots know this experience better than I. (And perhaps one of them can explain how to deal with it.)

    Bottom line: We know the risks. There are chances of a mid-air, just as there are chances of being T-boned by a driver on the road. We do our best. But not everything is under our control. Ecclesiastes 9:11

  13. @George Horn : Agree. In my arm chair flying, I decided a hard, wings level push over would be the best maneuver in our Glasair. (Being a low wing, could keep the other aircraft in sight.) But my problem is two-fold: 1) I have spent the past 45 years trying to be a smooth pilot. I don’t know if I could push over hard with the intensity needed. (I remember reading that kids who flew those Air Combat SIAI-Marchetti’s had no such inhibitions, and performed better than experienced pilots in Combat situations.) 2) Even if I could push over hard, the pain of the blood rushing to my head (not to mention all the stuff slamming up against the canopy) would probably cause me to instantly stop the pushover.

    Anyway, at least I had a plan.