Cross-Country Without a Clue

A 200-hour pilot set out to ferry his Bellanca from California to New Jersey. He didn't make it. There were no flight plans or telephone or radio contacts with the aircraft, and not much left of the plane. But it's not too hard to guess what happened...and why.


Moving is difficult for a family, but in these days of "upwardcorporate mobility" it’s not unusual for mid-level managersto change domiciles routinely as new opportunities arise. Severalyears ago, a private pilot moved his family and household goodsfrom California to New Jersey, then returned to the West Coastto pick up his Bellanca 260A and bring it to its new home. Neitherhe nor the airplane ever made it to New Jersey. Here’s what happened:

The pilot phoned his wife at 0745 EDT (0445 PDT) on the day ofthe accident to let her know he was leaving on the ferry flight.During their conversation, he provided her with a lot of informationabout the flight, including the intended route, the true airspeedof the aircraft, his estimated time en route and flying time betweenfuel stops. He did not, however, file any flight plans with FlightService.

When the pilot failed to arrive on time, his wife called the TeterboroFlight Service Station. They issued an "information request"to various FSSs along the proposed route of flight. That dispatchresulted in no information about the aircraft, so an ALNOT (alertnotice) was issued. Flight service stations between Californiaand New Jersey responded, saying they had no contact with theaircraft or pilot by phone or radio. The Salinas (Calif.) FSS,the closest to the pilot’s departure point, said that it had notbriefed the pilot or had any contact with the aircraft.

Scattered Storms

The following day, the wreckage of the aircraft was located abouttwo miles west of Pinehill, N.M. near the El Moro National Monument.The crash site was 44 miles southeast of the VOR at Gallup, N.M.and about 30 miles southwest of Grants Airport. The 41-year-oldpilot died in the crash.

Investigators interviewed the manager of Grants Airport aboutweather conditions that existed in the area on the day of theaccident. He told them that, at noon, the ceilings and visibilitywere low due to rain showers and scattered thunderstorms. A deputysheriff, whose home was about two miles from the crash site, saidhe heard a "deep thud_a sudden, sharp noise" that didn’tsound like thunder during a "terrific thunderstorm"that moved through the area around 1400.

A satellite photo taken just before noon showed heavy cloud coverover New Mexico, and radar summary charts indicated light rainshowers and isolated thunderstorms throughout the state. The nearestweather reporting point was Gallup, which recorded an estimated1,500-foot broken ceiling, a 3,000-foot overcast and 15 miles’visibility just before 1400.

The aircraft wreckage was scattered along a left-curving paththat was about a mile long. The left wing, which separated fromthe aircraft in flight in positive overload, was located nearlya mile from the main wreckage. The Bellanca’s wing was constructedentirely of wood, the components of which are bonded togetherwith glue and held under pressure until they dry. There was noindication of a preexisting defect, such as poor bonding, woodrot or delamination. Investigators determined that the airplanewas in a left bank when the wing failed and that the wing struckthe cockpit area before impact with the ground occurred.

The impact left a crater about two feet deep. The engine was foundin the bottom of the crater. Other pieces, such as the left aileron,the left flap and the elevator trim tab, were found scatteredalong the wreckage path.

Lack of Currency

The degree of cockpit destruction ruled out the recovery of anyinformation regarding the aircraft in flight or the operationof its systems. Investigators tried to locate the aircraft’s trackon recorded ATC radar tapes in an attempt to pin down the actualtime of the crash, but they could not do so.

About a month after the accident, an NTSB investigator receivedan invoice from the pilot’s wife. It was for fuel and three quartsof oil the pilot purchased on the day of the accident at Flagstaff,Ariz. A check with the bank card center showed that the purchasewas authorized at 1032. The distance from Flagstaff to the crashsite is 165 nautical miles, and the true airspeed of the aircraftwas estimated as approximately 170 knots. So, investigators believethe crash occurred around noon.

The pilot was not instrument-rated. He had logged 127 of his 193total hours in the Bellanca. He had only 2.6 hours of simulatedinstrument time that probably went back to his student pilot trainingthree years earlier. His logbook indicated that he had not flownthe aircraft for four and a half months before the accident, andthat he did not have a "current" BFR (biennial flightreview).

The aircraft was manufactured in May 1964. Total airframe timewas 982 hours, and there were 772 hours on the engine. Maintenancerecords indicated that the last annual inspection was completed19 months prior to the accident.

Above the Weather

Long cross-country flights, especially those involving multiplestops for fuel, often compel a VFR pilot to deal with the dynamicsof several different weather systems before the final destinationis in sight. It is imperative that he or she be constantly awareof the weather and any problems it might present. Yet there isno record that this pilot ever checked the weather.

Did he watch the Weather Channel or some other TV weather programbefore departing from California? We don’t know, but I find ithard to believe that he started on such a long trip without knowingsomething about the weather along the way. It is also likely thathe may have planned to fly above any weather he might encounter.

VFR pilots must be cautious when flying above weather for anygreat distance. What if a landing must be made due to a systemsfailure or some other anomaly? The best chance the pilot has ofgetting on the ground safely is if he can see the surface, locatean airport and land there visually. Any instrument training apilot receives while working on his license is adequate only toenable him to make a 180-degree turn on the gauges and returnto VFR weather should he get into IFR conditions inadvertently.And if that skill is not maintained after the ticket is in thepilot’s pocket, chances are he will not be successful in completingthat simple maneuver, never mind trying to fly on the gauges forany length of time.

Rare is it when a pilot can cross the entire country in one daywithout running into weather somewhere along the route. It appearsthat this pilot was intent on making the coast-to-coast flightin one day. He got a very early start, departing from Californiaat approximately 0500. By the time he crossed the border of NewMexico and Arizona, only 40 or so miles from the crash site, hisflight time was something over four hours. He had been awake forat least seven hours. Perhaps the pilot was already feeling theeffects of a long day as he departed Flagstaff on the second legof his flight.


We can only speculate on what the Bellanca pilot may have beenthinking before the crash. First, his overall attitude about flyingappears to have been one of little consideration for the rules.That he did not get a biennial flight review or have an annualinspection of his airplane accomplished according to the rulessays a lot about his approach to his role as a pilot.

Missing the deadline for either a BFR or an annual inspectioncould be considered an inadvertent oversight (certainly not anexcusable one). But missing two important deadlines indicatesother, deeper problems. It’s possible that the cross-country moveplayed a part in the pilot’s negligence, but there’s no excusefor not bringing himself and his airplane "up to speed"before attempting the long trip.

Perhaps if the pilot had taken a BFR to "brush up" andget current before the long flight, the instructor would haveput him under the hood long enough to alert him to the fact thathe could not fly the airplane solely by referring to the gauges.It might have given him something to think about when he saw theweather ahead.

The fatal blow was the pilot’s apparent disregard for flying inthe weather. It does not appear that he made a 180-degree turnto get out of it. Certainly, he should have seen that the cloudswere thickening and growing in front of him. When it became apparentthat he couldn’t climb above the weather or maintain VFR conditions,he should have turned back to where the good weather was. Theweather report at Gallup indicated the presence of multiple layersof clouds, and the weather back toward Flagstaff was good.

We don’t know if he flew into a thunderstorm or simply lost controlof the airplane in instrument conditions. The airplane stalledand spun or spiraled to the ground, exceeding its design limitationsand coming apart before impact.

The pilot’s knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of the weather conditionsis important in this accident. Did he know there was weather overNew Mexico and elect to try to get above it or fly through it?We have to assume that he had some sort of idea what was goingon along the route of flight, even if that information did notcome from traditional and legal aviation weather sources. Perhapshe heard that there was a chance of rain showers and thunderstorms,and figured that meant VFR conditions aloft.

Maybe his attitude was simply: "I’ll go look and see what’sout there. If it gets ugly, I’ll turn back." That’s a badidea in most cases, because too many pilots hesitate to turn backor wait too long to make the lifesaving turn when they do encounterweather. And, too often, that "look-see" attitude isnothing more than a shill. It really means: "I’m going atall costs."

What do we have to do to convince VFR pilots that they can’t flyin instrument conditions? There are too many accidents each yearinvolving pilots who have no business being out in weather thatis forecast to be bad. It can be argued that some of them "gotcaught," but it’s obvious that many of these accidents resultfrom conscious actions by the pilots-in-command. No, they don’tset out to kill themselves or their passengers, but they do intentionallyfly into weather conditions they can’t handle. They know the weatheris there, and they know that VFR flight is impossible; but theygo anyway.

It’s up to each of us to examine our motivations. Rules and regulationsin any endeavor are established to reduce some of the risks involvedin the activity. Some people believe the rules are too stringentor for some reason don’t apply to their situations, and they don’tobey them. In aviation, as we have seen countless times, thattype of attitude can kill you.

As student pilots, we are taught the importance of complying withthe laws. There’s little doubt that each person, when he or shereceives their private pilot certificate, understands what theyare allowed to do and what they must avoid doing. In additionto the legal ramifications, the safety aspects are well-explained.Yet too many of us get into situations where there is little hopeof survival.

On Your Own

It’s often low-time pilots who find themselves in the predicament.They’re eager to fly, having just received their licenses. Thetraffic pattern has less interest for them now that they can gowherever they want to go without having to talk it over with theirflight instructor first.

One such accident involved a 126-hour pilot who was not instrument-rated.He was flying a Piper Arrow back home to Richlands, Va. from Hickory,N.C. one night when the aircraft struck high terrain about 1.5miles from his destination.

A witness at the destination airport reported to investigatorsthat the aircraft departed three hours earlier on the first legof the flight. About 45 minutes after the aircraft left, fog beganforming. When the accident occurred, the visibility was zero.

The pilot asked ATC for radar vectors to the airport. He askedfor confirmation that he was directly over his destination, andthe controller told him he was. There were no more transmissionsfrom the pilot. The terrain the airplane struck was about 500feet above the airport elevation. Apparently, the pilot was tryingto descend below the fog to locate the airport. He should haveknown about the high terrain close to the airport.

Fog is dangerous, especially to low-time pilots who don’t understandhow deceptive it can be. Ground lights may be visible from directlyoverhead that give the appearance of good visibility. Perhapsthe pilot did see some lights and thought he saw the airport.He may have been trying to position himself to land. Maybe hedidn’t see anything and decided to try to get below the clouddeck; if so, he couldn’t have known precisely where he was inrelation to the terrain.

Sealed Fate

When the Arrow and Bellanca pilots voluntarily flew into the clouds,their fates were sealed. They didn’t have to do that. The Arrowpilot could have climbed back to a safe altitude and, with ATC’shelp, flown somewhere else where VFR conditions prevailed. TheBellanca pilot could have maintained VFR by making a 180-degreeturn and heading for better weather.

It’s certainly not only low-time pilots who get into trouble withweather. Sometimes, experienced instrument pilots find themselvesin the same predicament. The airplanes they are flying may notbe instrument-certified or have the equipment needed for a particularapproach, so they attempt the same thing the Arrow pilot did.They may be in an area where they are below ATC’s radio and radarcoverage, and can’t get an IFR clearance. There are all kindsof reasons why a pilot may choose to fly in the clouds illegally,but if he or she winds up dead, they don’t mean anything.

We’ll never know any more about why the Bellanca or Arrow pilotsmade the decisions they did. Would they do it differently if theyhad another chance? That’s something to mull over before you getinto your airplane for the next flight. What will you do if yousee clouds ahead or become trapped above a fog or cloud layer?Turn around? Call and recheck the weather? Is your mind absolutelymade up that without an instrument rating and a properly equippedairplane, you will remain in VFR conditions, even if it meansan early landing and a waiting period on the ground?

The two accidents we’ve discussed offer some potentially lifesavinglessons for each of us.