Accident Probe: Exceeding Capabilities

Even with a well-equipped airplane, it can be easy to forget that neither we nor it are ready for everything.


One of the truisms in aviation is that there’s weather no airplane should tackle. The addendum is that if you want to go shoot approaches in your Cessna 150 through relatively benign IMC, there’s probably not that much that can go wrong. But even a 747 likely won’t tolerate extreme icing. And we all (should) know that a strong microburst at the wrong time and place can bring down anything.

The moral here is that there always will be conditions we should avoid or wait out for improvement before launching to visit the grandparents at Thanksgiving. Some of that depends on how our chosen airplane is equipped. Some of it doesn’t. But all of it hinges on honestly assessing our own readiness for the challenge. It’s one thing to critically examine our airplane’s capabilities and shortcomings but it’s another to point a critical eye at ourselves.

An easily understood, real-world example is the owner of a high-performance single who just doesn’t have the time to earn the instrument rating but somehow always seems to find enough VMC to complete the mission on-schedule. He (and it’s always a he) obviously is relying on sophisticated avionics and the autopilot to keep the dirty side down and compensate for his lack of skills and training.

Yes, that’s an extreme, but there’s someone right now at your local airport who’s planning something similar. Less extreme variants of such a scheme are common, too: stretching fuel, overloading the airplane, skimping on maintenance and flying with a known medical deficiency are all examples of how we can be drawn into situations exceeding our or the airplane’s capabilities.

It’s bad enough when we stretch the airplane’s capabilities or our own. Here’s an example of what can happen when we stretch them both.


On April 23, 2021, at about 1701 Central time, a Piper PA-46-310P Malibu was destroyed when it broke up in flight near Danville, Arkansas. The commercial pilot (male, 28) and three passengers sustained fatal injuries. Instrument conditions prevailed.

The airplane departed Muskogee, Oklahoma, at 1622, with Williston, Florida, as its destination. At about 1651, the pilot reported climbing through 16,000 feet MSL on the way to the flight-planned altitude of FL230. As the airplane climbed through 18,600 feet MSL, its groundspeed began to gradually decrease from 171 knots. By about 1658, after reaching 20,200 feet, the airplane had slowed to 145 knots groundspeed and began to descend on a southeasterly heading. No further radio communications were received from the pilot, who did not respond to repeated calls from ATC. The flight path then became erratic. The last radar return was about 1000 feet south of the accident site.


Most of the airplane came to rest in densely forested terrain at an elevation of about 930 feet. The outboard portion of the right wing, right aileron, right horizontal stabilizer and right elevator were not in the vicinity of the main wreckage and have not been found, despite multiple attempts by the NTSB. The recovered airframe components and engine did not display evidence of pre-existing mechanical malfunctions or anomalies precluding normal operation.

Based on the weight of the removed cargo and the passengers, plus flight-planned fuel, the airplane would have been about 361 lbs.—almost nine percent—over its maximum gross takeoff weight when departing Muskogee.

The en route weather forecasts were rife with the word “icing.” The current icing product (CIP) for 1700 CDT indicated a 40-to-60 percent probability of icing at 14,000, 16,000 and 18,000 feet MSL above the accident site, with pockets of “moderate to heavy” icing along the flight track leading to the accident location. There also was an unknown probability of supercooled large droplets (SLD) above 12,000 feet MSL at the accident site. The one-hour forecast icing product (FIP) valid for 1700 CDT indicated a 30-to-50 percent probability of moderate to heavy icing between 14,000 to 18,000 feet MSL over the accident area.

The accident pilot obtained weather information from Leidos Flight Service at about 1554 and had additional discussions through about 1620. Additionally, a search of archived ForeFlight information indicates the accident pilot requested and received related information at 1525. 

A review of the pilot’s FAA airman certification file revealed multiple notices of disapproval issued when the pilot failed various practical tests for certificates or ratings. The first notice was issued March 20, 2015, in conjunction with the pilot’s application for a private pilot certificate. The second disapproval notice was issued December 1, 2018, when the pilot failed his initial flight instructor checkride. Two additional disapprovals were associated with the pilot’s application to add an instrument rating to his flight instructor certificate. These occurred on October 20, 2019, and July 10, 2020.

Probable Cause

The NTSB determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The pilot’s improper decision to continue flight in an area of moderate-to-heavy icing conditions, which resulted in exceedance of the airplane’s anti-icing system capabilities, a degradation of aircraft performance, and subsequent aerodynamic stall.”

There’s certainly a lot going on here, and any one of the identified deficiencies—overloading, bad weather, a history of poor airmanship—by itself might be enough to bring down a well-equipped airplane. A piston single, even if it’s turbocharged, pressurized and equipped for known icing our first choice for such an airplane.

From the record, we don’t know how the pilot operated the airplane’s anti-icing system, although the NTSB spent time reminding readers that the old-style method of waiting for ice to build on the wings before cracking it off with the inflatable boots no longer is the preferred method. (See the sidebar, “Get Cracking,” below for more details.) For all we know, he may never have activated the boots. Or he maybe did exactly as the NTSB recommends throughout the flight. We just don’t know. We also don’t know how important the cargo or the mission itself was.

But we do know that waiting for better weather or going around it, even if it made an en route fuel stop mandatory, would have been the wiser choice.

Get Cracking

Image: Fred Scott

According to the NTSB’s Safety Alert SA-014, Activate Leading-Edge Deice Boots As Soon as Airplane Enters Icing Conditions, pilots of deicing-boot equipped airplanes should:

  • Activate them as soon as icing is encountered, unless the AFM or POH specifically directs pilots not to.
  • If the AFM/POH specifies to wait for an accumulation of ice before activating the deice boots, maintain extremely careful vigilance of airspeed and any unusual handling qualities.
  • While icing conditions exist, continue to manually cycle the deice system unless it has a provision for continuous operation.
  • Turn off or limit autopilot use in order to better “feel” changes in the airplane’s handling qualities.
  • Be aware that some aircraft manufacturers maintain that waiting for the accumulation of ice is still the most effective means of shedding ice.

Aircraft Profile: 1985 Piper PA-46-310P Malibu

Not accident aircraft. Image: Tomás Del Coro

OEM Engine: Continental TSIO-520-BE

Empty Weight: 2460 lbs.

Maximum Gross Takeoff Weight: 4100 lbs.

Typical Cruise Speed: 180 KTAS

Standard Fuel Capacity: 120 gal.

Service Ceiling: 25,000 ft.

Range: 1261 NM

VS0: 50 KCAS

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of Aviation Safety magazine.

For more great content like this, subscribe to Aviation Safety!

Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside
Jeb Burnside is the editor-in-chief of Aviation Safety magazine. He’s an airline transport pilot who owns a Beechcraft Debonair, plus the expensive half of an Aeronca 7CCM Champ.


  1. Experienced with about 23 Yr flying B747s (2-3-400 series) I have to say I selected (airframe) de-icing (heated leading edges) only once or twice in my career. Engine anti-icing, yes, we used a lot.
    In the beginning, during certification, Boeing tested with 2 inch thick glued-on rubber “icing” blocks on the leading edges and as far as I have heard then, it hardly increased stalling speed.
    That does not hold with any versions on-ground icing, twice we cancelled a flight due to
    XXX freezing rain. One of those flights we could leave only the next day when the frontal system had passed, it took up to 3 hours to get it cleaned, I still have pics of the “bearded” engines.
    Sure, those airliners fly a lot above the weather, and not all airlines have the same route structure, and just for the relative short descent/climb one can pass quickly through the dangerous layers.
    But the GA part of my career (younger, more foolish, more drives to accept the flight), I have seen ice building up to uncomfortable levels. Without even having prop de-icing….
    I still fly GA, well after my airline retirement, but those early day experiences made me a careful pilot. Alas not all young pilots have had the same luck as I did….

  2. As with Richbran above, i flew the Classic Whale for 16 years plus 16 years in the C-141. They both are hot wings of course and icing wasn’t a real problem because we passed through those icing levels quickly. My flight experience in the T-29 and C-118 (CV 240 and DC-6) was a different case. All was out of Mather in Sacramento CA and icing was a continuous issue all winter especially because we flew the -29 mainly at the freezing level. We had hot wings and emprnage plus prop heat. It was a real challenge to keep the temps maxed out, the carb temp at 15 degrees max, the MAP where needed, etc, ad nauseum. With the big radome underneath, we often came home really loaded down with ice. Even had to open the DV window on occasion to crack enough ice off the windshield to see to land. Ah, the good old days of 145 avgas, props, and round engines.

  3. A friend of mine died when the C208 he was flying was overwhelmed by ice in Wisconsin. He crashed in a ravine that night. I had one time I had so much ice on the C208 I was flying that all I could do was 120kts going downhill on the glide slope on the ILS approach I was doing. Even though Caravans are certified for known ice there is a lot of unprotected surfaces and they can pick up ice very quickly with all the drag associated with that. In 2006 an AD changed all the icing procedures in the Caravan. Seems to have worked as there have not been as many pilot fatalities due to pilots getting into ice conditions the plane cannot handle.

  4. Oh the disappointment…

    “It’s always a he”?!?! Are we really doing that in this day and age? Come on guys, you’re better than that. Aside from being blatantly sexist and supporting the continuation of a negative stereotype, you do our “other than he” pilots a huge disservice by essentially telling them this is something they don’t have to consider. Interesting tactic at the head of an article you want people to read. And all of that is completely aside from the fact that your assertion is of course factually inaccurate. The first instance that comes to mind is the young (female) freighter pilot who pushed too hard in Southern Idaho a few years ago. I’m certain there are others. I have faith that the female pilot mind is equally capable of all the hubris and various other stupidities that male pilots exhibit. To claim otherwise is insulting to both.

    This is not just a call out of the author either. A good editor should have caught this. This is the equivalent of bad mouthing black folk in print back in the 1800’s. Many people will accept it, but that doesn’t make it right. You should know better.

    I hate to have to bring this up, but we all know that if you’d made that same statement about female pilots you’d have been crucified – and rightly so. Grow up already.

    • That comment isn’t adequate in this article and in relationship with the other comms. To find what is adequate or not, you must also grow up.

  5. This plane did not crash because of icing. I have been doing research on unexplained plane crashes for years. This plane crashed because it flew into a vortex, not a tornado as they only form in a thunderstorm. Vortexes (landspouts) form as hot air rises and starts to spin/rotate due to the Corolis Effect on the rising hot air. It is similar to the long-held belief that volcanoes can create a tornado, but these vortexes are not tornadoes, they are vortexes (landspouts) as they are not created by a mesocyclone within a thunderstorm. This hot air vortex was created by the hot air exhausting from the International Paper Company in Valliant, Oklahoma. Any time there is a High Velocity Overhead Jet Stream (HVOJS) above about 58 Knots a vortex or tornado can be created. And in this case, there was 167 Knot HVOJS flowing from the Valliant Paper Mill, in Valliant, OK, to the crash site at Waltreak, AR. Just think what kind of stresses the plane would have been subjected to in the vortex. It would have been similar to being caught in a tornado. I have a whole book on this subject titled: Science About How Tornadoes And Vortexes Form And How They Are Causing Planes To Crash (Including MH370). If you want to learn something, just read my book.
    Ronald B. Hardwig, Professional Engineer

    • Dear Ronald,

      Thank you for your groundbreaking revelation that tornadoes cause plane crashes. Your ability to connect dots that no one else can even see is truly impressive. We’ve gathered the team, and we’re working tirelessly to validate your conclusion.

      In the interest of science and safety, we’ve taken a bold step to expedite this process. We believe that a review of your medication list is absolutely crucial in order to fully understand the genius behind your theory. After all, it’s essential to know if your research was conducted under the influence of any, shall we say, “unconventional” substances.

      Please do us the favor of posting your medication list here at your earliest convenience. It’s only fair that the world knows which pharmaceuticals are responsible for such brilliant insights. Who knows, maybe your prescription of “Imagin-nax” or “Hypothesizone” is the secret sauce that has eluded other researchers.

      We want to emphasize just how much we appreciate your dedication and scientific acumen in tackling this challenging topic. In fact, your work has inspired us to consider other groundbreaking hypotheses, such as “Feral cats causing crop circles” and “The Loch Ness Monster’s role in climate change.”

      Rest assured, Ronald, you are a true pioneer in the world of unconventional aviation science, and your contributions will not go unnoticed. Keep up the good work, and remember, the sky’s the limit (unless you’re near a tornado, of course).

      Yours in the whirlwinds of discovery,

      The Quimby Doolittle Society