None Dare Call It Murder


Non-fatal accident/incidents bring easy derision from those of us who’ve never been caught screwing up. Which is why each year IFR magazine runs Stupid Pilot Tricks, a jolly romp through NTSB accident reports, from which we present the best of the worst offenders for sanctimonious ridicule. If you think that’s sophomoric, it is. But I challenge anyone to not become cynical after reading through the roughly 1500 new reports each year (way down from decades past as Paul Bertorelli reported), many repeating the same stupid mistakes with the same results.

One rule for the Stupids column is we never make fun of the dead. Still, some of the fatal accidents seem blatantly avoidable and dumb to the point of criminality. In that vein, here’s a review of a crash, which doesn’t deserve to be called an “accident” in the sense of Oooops, didn’t see that coming. Caution: Nothing funny here, just four dead.

On September 5, 2015, at 11:50 a.m. a 1963 Cessna 310H departed Flagstaff, Arizona, heading VFR to Amarillo, Texas, 483 miles almost straight east. Didn’t get close to the destination. VFR weather was reported and forecast along the intended route. North of that, not so good.

At 14:08, the C-310 crashed 247 miles northeast of Flagstaff, near Silverton, Colorado. Weather at Telluride, Colorado, 12 miles northwest of the wreckage, was VFR but included thunderstorms in the vicinity. Observations closer to the crash site reported rain and high humidity consistent with cloud cover and mountain obscuration. The NTSB reports: “The wreckage path was estimated to be about 1050 feet long along an estimated northerly direction in up-sloping mountainous terrain … wreckage distribution was consistent with a low-angle, high-speed impact.” Picture that—a thousand-foot skid mark on a mountain, aligned perpendicular to the C-310’s proposed easterly route. They hit fast and hard. Except for the empennage, little was recognizable as airplane or human.

The NTSB listed probable cause as: “The non-instrument-rated pilot’s improper judgment and his failure to maintain situational awareness, which resulted in the flight’s encounter with (IMC) and controlled flight into terrain during cruise flight.” A sad but not uncommon end to a chain of bonehead decision making, forged with many deadly links.

The NTSB continues: “…no flight plan had been filed. The pilot was not using air traffic control (ATC) services.” So what? A flight plan (VFR or IFR) cannot prevent an accident; it’s paperwork. Flight plans are required for IFR flight and help locate VFR wrecks. That’s about it. ATC services cannot prevent stupidity.

Here’s where it slides into criminal stupidity. The “non-instrument-rated” private pilot/owner was not multi-engine rated and didn’t seem to know diddly about flying—at least safe flying—in anything. The trip began innocently enough early that morning at the Twin Cessna’s home base at Big Bear City Airport, California, for a 36-mile hop to Barstow-Daggett to pick up the (three) passengers, one of whom was a single-engine, non-instrument-rated pilot.

The PIC’s daughter later reported to the NTSB that they were “going to fly to Amarillo, Texas, following Interstate 40, where they were going to have dinner and then return the same day.” A reasonably safe VFR plan. Interstates are great navaids that also offer emergency landing sites. A fuel stop was planned at Flagstaff. Good so far … other than not being multi-rated. But things got weird on approach into Flagstaff.

Transcripts between the Twin Cessna and Flagstaff’s control tower show a confused pilot. For example, the NTSB says, “He was set up for the left base leg instead of right base leg as instructed.” A minor glitch, but the pilot further vexed tower controllers by misidentifying “in every transmission the make and model airplane he was flying, referring to his airplane as a Piper Comanche instead of a Cessna 310.” Admittedly, I screw up callsigns, particularly as a CFI hopping from airplane to airplane, so I won’t throw stones here.

Once safely on the ground, the Twin Cessna (not Comanche) “almost hit another airplane and golf carts,” the NTSB reports, “and it was taxied close enough to the fuel pumps that it ‘knocked’ a ladder with one of its propellers.” Prop damage couldn’t have been too severe, because the pilot refueled and took the down time to get an abbreviated briefing from AFSS for the leg from Flagstaff to Amarillo, telling the briefer that he intended to land at “L51.” Problem.

The identifier for Amarillo is KTDW, while L51 is the identifier for Heller Farm Airport, Winifred, Montana, located north of the accident location and in a direction consistent with the airplane’s direction of travel at the time of the accident. The sectional chart’s data box for Amarillo airport shows “L51,” although, it’s not the identifier but, instead, the length of Amarillo’s longest runway at 5100 feet.

The accident airplane was no gem. Onboard flight instruments were reported by a witness at Big Bear airport as “very old” and “… not all that good.” The daughter reported that a GPS was onboard. While the instrument panel was destroyed on impact, it’s possible—likely—that “L51” had been entered into the GPS as the destination. My speculation. The dutiful GPS would have pointed the VFR pilot north from Flagstaff for Heller Farm (L51) Montana, 750 miles away, instead of east toward Amarillo (KTDW). It gets worse.

As rough as the non-multi-rated pilot’s performance was on arrival to Flagstaff, he was arguably more dangerous outbound. The NTSB states: “During the departure for the accident flight, the pilot taxied to and attempted to take off from an active runway without any radio communications with or clearance from ATC, which resulted in a runway incursion of an air carrier flight on final approach for landing to the runway.” When I was a tower controller, I experienced several WTF moments with situations like this, usually followed by a command to taxi to the ramp and “call the tower,” which included a verbal butt-chewing by a tower supe and a mea culpa from the contrite pilot. No need getting FSDO involved.

Around 11:50 a.m. Flagstaff tower cleared the Cessna 310 for takeoff, and it turned north toward Montana, instead of east toward Texas. This being class D airspace, tower controllers were under no obligation to provide ATC navigation. Phoenix Approach Control provides ATC radar service in the area, but the C-310 was outside Class B airspace and not required to utilize the service. Squawking 1200, the doomed airplane was tracked heading north—way off course.

Accident investigations involve more than inspecting the salvageable pieces. Investigators recovered the aircraft and pilot logbooks, revealing that the C-310 was overdue for its annual inspection so technically was unairworthy. But airplanes don’t fly or crash because of logbook entries.

The non-flying, passenger-pilot is tragically irrelevant to the accident, although he may have been involved in GPS navigation. We’ll never know. The flying pilot’s logbook showed no record of having ever received instruction in the accident airplane. He did log time in a Twin Comanche and had logged a total of 150 hours of multi-engine time. The NTSB noted, “However, there were no logbook entries documenting flights in multiengine airplanes before the page indicating that he had 150 hours of multiengine flight time.” Meaning it’s vague if he had any multi training or when he acquired this non-specific 150 hours. He was also overdue for a flight review. His last review, 26 months earlier, had been in a Cherokee 180.

The NTSB discovered that the pilot had carried passengers in the C-310 on previous flights and further noted that “The pilot’s logbook showed that he had once made low-altitude (10 feet above the ground) passes over a parade in the same airplane.” Good of him to log it and not his first admission to buzzing parades. Celebrating Independence Day, 2012 at Daggett, California, he recorded in his logbook that he “Flew over parade 10 feet off ground made six passes.” Boasting or just criminally stupid? Or both?

To sum up: There’s little point in concluding that the dead twin Cessna pilot was irresponsible. That’d be like saying tsunamis are bad. Every bit of evidence depicts a pilot with absolutely no grasp of the seriousness of flight in a high-performance twin, nor the consequences to himself and others for failure.

From the 45+ years I’ve been a GA fixture, I can envision the ghosts of too many stupid pilots who’ve splattered into mountains, snagged powerlines, miserably failed at demonstrating steep banking departures and flown equipment for which they were legally and/or morally unqualified. Truth is I could easily—and several times over—have joined that ignominious ghost parade.

No one likes to snitch on a fellow pilot, but when stupidity runs to the depths that this Cessna owner displayed, then there’s no pilot at the controls. That’s borders on the criminal, a airplane driver who killed three others while being stupid. Conclude whatever you want, but there’s nothing funny about it.

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