It Wasn’t Remarkable

No flight in a general aviation airplane is unremarkable. Every one is special in its own way-as well as being a tool for learning.


The aircraft involved was a 1973 Cessna T210L. It had a current annual inspection, was ADS-B compliant, had a GPS approved for IFR operations and the database for the avionics was found to be current. The aircraft was not approved for flight into known icing conditions, a concern for the planned October flight into the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains. Total time on the airframe was not determined, however, the engine had been overhauled three years earlier, and had been operated some 350 hours since overhaul, primarily being run, according to aircraft co-owners, in a regime described as “lean of peak.”

The pilot was well rested, in good health, had not consumed any alcohol in more than 12 hours prior to the flight and was instrument qualified and current, having completed an Instrument Proficiency Check and Flight Review within the preceding three months. The pilot obtained weather information for the flight via computer and a telephone call to Flight Service before the planned 1600 Z departure for the flight from Des Moines, Iowa (KDSM) to Denver Centennial Airport (KAPA).

Forecast Weather

Marginal ceilings in western Iowa generated a warning that VFR was not recommended; clouds were layered up to 8000 feet over Iowa but were forecast to break up by the time the flight reached Nebraska. It would be largely clear over Nebraska, with layered clouds developing over the plains of eastern Colorado-scattered showers with ceilings as low as 1500 feet were forecast for the destination. Areas of heavy rain and thunderstorms were present across Kansas and were forecast to develop in central Colorado, south of Denver, in association with an occluded front that was forecast to become stationary. Witnesses stated that the pilot often commented about the difficulty of flying in the afternoons in the Denver area due to turbulence or thunderstorms that would develop even when only rain showers were forecast.

The pilot elected to go, filing IFR at 6000 feet, well below the Minimum Enroute Altitudes (MEA) on the latter portion of the route. The human factors consultant brought in to assist the investigation told investigators that the selected altitude may have been to take advantage of expected tailwinds over portions of the route with lower MEAs or it may have been an indication the pilot was distracted by the well-known phenomena of “gethomeitis” and did not realize that MEAs for a portion of his trip were higher than his filed altitude.

The balance of the airplane was calculated to have been within limits-the weight was slightly more than 400 pounds below the maximum allowable gross weight.

Witnesses stated that the pilot and his wife had been visiting family in the area as they did each October, to go “color touring” with the pilot’s mother. They said the pilot had expressed his frustration at arriving too late for the peak colors the previous two years and too early this year, announcing that, if nothing else, he’d “got it surrounded.” The human factors consultant said that the expression of frustration may have been a further indication of “gethomeitis” on the part of the pilot.


The FBO, Elliott Aviation, reported that the pilot had requested that the airplane be topped off with fuel when he had arrived three days earlier42.6 gallons were added, filling the tanks. The sales records showed that the fuel was delivered as requested and the pilot had paid for it with a credit card. FBO line personnel reported observing the pilot walking around the airplane, while holding what appeared to be a fuel sampling device, touching and looking at various portions of the aircraft.

Asked why people had noticed the pilot’s activities around the aircraft, FBO personnel said that the pilot had been in an Air Explorer Scout Post the FBO had sponsored some 40 years earlier, through which he had received free ground school toward his private pilot certificate. He had moved away from Des Moines after college, but whenever he flew in, he always came to the FBO and had expressed his appreciation for the FBO’s support when he was a “broke kid who wanted to learn to fly,” so he was enough of an oddity that people sometimes paid attention to him.

The human factors consultant said that the pilot’s long-time use of the same FBO and familiarity with the area may have bred complacency that adversely affected his preflight actions.

The aircraft was cleared to Denver Centennial Airport via the Des Moines Five departure, then direct with an initial altitude of 5000 feet. At 1515Z, 45 minutes before the filed time of departure, the flight departed from runway 31. The human factors expert and the investigator in charge (IIC) disagreed as to why the pilot had departed early. The human factors consultant opined that it was consistent with the pilot’s declining a breakfast invitation due to gethomeitis, while the IIC stated that he felt it was because the pilot was concerned about forecast rain showers in the Denver area in the afternoon and the pilot’s comments that rain showers often turn to thunderstorms along the Front Range near Denver.

After liftoff, when the airplane was at only 100 feet AGL, the local controller suddenly directed the flight to turn left to a heading of 270 degrees. An abrupt left turn was made as the landing gear was seen to retract. No explanation was forthcoming for the turn, which was issued before the airplane had reached midfield. The low altitude turn took the airplane away from safe landing areas on the airport almost immediately. Despite regularly having been flown “lean of peak,” the engine continued to operate normally

Into Clouds

The aircraft disappeared into the stratus layer above the airport at 1500 feet AGL and continued its climb on the assigned heading until reaching 4500 feet, when it was cleared on course to its destination and to climb to 6000 feet. When asked his flight conditions, the pilot reported that the aircraft was flying between layers in smooth air. Even though the pilot could not see the ground and it would be questionable as to whether a safe forced landing could be made under the prevailing low ceilings, the pilot elected to continue the flight.

Shortly after leveling off at 6000 feet, the aircraft was handed off to Minneapolis Center, which worked it until handing it off to Omaha Approach as it reached western Iowa. The aircraft followed a great circle route toward Denver Centennial Airport, causing analysts to conclude that it was flying on autopilot following GPS navigator inputs.

Over the town of Loma, Nebraska the flight path of the airplane briefly diverged south of course. Another divergence took place between Grand Island and Kearney, Nebraska. The IIC stated that he believed that the two episodes indicated a problem manifesting itself with the flight control system or the avionics/autopilot interface. In the alternative, the IIC said because the pilot had commented on his ForeFlight app on his iPad shutting down several times on the flight to Des Moines (after he had installed the new operating system), it was possible that further shutdowns had caused the pilot to wander off course.

The human factors consultant said that his interviews with family members revealed that the pilot greatly enjoyed the view from aloft. He said that the excursions were probably because the motion picture To Woo Fong, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar was filmed in Loma, Nebraska and pilot had made a brief left turn to look at the village. As the flight traversed the area between Grand Island and Kearney it crossed the route of the Pony Express, the transcontinental railroad and the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway. The pilot was known to be interested in history and would often divert slightly from his planed routes to look at historical sites from the air. It was the consultant’s opinion that the excursions had nothing to do with a mechanical issue with the airplane but were more likely caused by a pilot who was undisciplined enough to allow himself to enjoy a flight rather than remaining single-mindedly determined to conduct it as efficiently and safely as possible-the sightseeing excursions increased the time the aircraft was in the air and therefore its exposure to a mid-air collision or engine failure.

The groundspeed of the airplane steadily increased as it proceeded westbound and entered airspace controlled by Denver Center, eventually peaking at 182 knots, although the aircraft flight plan had showed a 150 knot true airspeed.


Over rising terrain in western Nebraska, the Denver Center controller cleared the flight to climb to 10,000 feet, with an explanation that it was to assure radar coverage. Even at the higher altitude, westbound, the groundspeed did not diminish. The human factors consultant said that the speed increase was due to the pilot increasing power due to gethomeitis. The IIC disagreed, relying on winds aloft plots to show that the tailwind present was consistent with a constant power setting on the turbocharged engine.

Upon being handed off to Denver Approach, the pilot confirmed he had the current ATIS at Centennial Airport. Despite the airport being VFR, the pilot accepted vectors to the southwest for the ILS 35R instrument approach. This vector brought the aircraft into an area of light to moderate rain showers south of the Denver that were increasing in intensity and moving slowly north. The flight was observed to track through areas of moderate rain as it was vectored for the approach. Despite the turbulence, control of the airplane was maintained. Upon being turned to intercept the localizer some four miles outside the outer marker, the aircraft was observed to reduce speed by some 30 knots and intercept the localizer at 8500 feet.

The aircraft flew level on the localizer to a point outside the outer marker where it started a descent at what was later calculated to be 110 KIAS and the pilot was instructed to contact Centennial Tower. It took the pilot two tries to establish contact with the Tower, which cleared him to “continue” the approach. A number of airplanes were then cleared to depart from runway 35R as the flight neared the airport. The pilot was alerted to traffic on base leg to parallel runway 35L; moments later the pilot called the traffic in sight.

At one mile from the runway, the flight was cleared to land. The pilot acknowledged. Witnesses later said that the aircraft’s landing gear appeared to be extended and the wing flaps fully deployed as it crossed the threshold of runway 35R at approximately 50 feet AGL.

3:27 minutes after takeoff, the aircraft touched down on 35R, and was cleared to exit on taxiway A9 and then to contact ground control for a taxi clearance. Upon exiting the runway, the aircraft established contact with Centennial Ground Control and received a taxi clearance to its hangar, which it acknowledged. There was no further contact with the aircraft by ATC.

Witnesses observed the aircraft to stop at a point in front of a hangar and the two occupants to exit the airplane and proceed immediately to a rest room. Shortly afterward, they returned and unloaded suitcases and other items from the airplane, a fuel truck arrived and put an undisclosed amount of fuel into the airplane. The airplane was then pushed back in its hangar and the door closed. The occupants got into a car and drove away.


On the way home from the airport, I called my mom to tell her we’d landed safely (despite being a WAVE who married a Naval Aviator during World War II, having two sons, a granddaughter and a nephew who are pilots and a late sister who was a pilot, she worries). I told her that the flight wasn’t remarkable.

It was only after I got home and replayed the flight in my head to see how I might have done it better, did I realize that it was remarkable-on two levels. On the first, we too often take “routine” flights for granted-only looking closely at those that do not go well. So I looked at the flight as it might have been dissected by the NTSB had the airplane reached earth other than under circumstances I intended. I think it’s important to learn from flights that go well-after all practicing success makes sense.

On a second level, the flight, like all flights, was remarkable for the simple and abiding joy one gets from being able to fly an airplane and see our land from the sky.

Yeah, I blew it again this year on timing the colors in the Midwest-which can be nothing short of incredible. Yet, because of the flight, I was able to enjoy the fascinating visuals of the world between layers of clouds, and then, after the clouds ended, to watch the harvest beginning in our nation’s granary. Through Iowa and Nebraska, I could see the combines making their way through the corn and soybean fields as semis waited to start the bounty on its journey to tables throughout the world. It’s stunning to watch.

Of course the engine is run lean of peak – I’ve seen the data, I’ve been in the test cell at GAMI. The result has been a healthy engine that runs cool and isn’t full of lead deposits.

I did second-guess myself on accepting the ILS for runway 35R when there was weather moving in from the south and we got bounced around a bit in moderate rain. I should have either asked for lower and vectors for the airport for a visual approach or the GPS approach to runway 28.

I am glad that I hustled to get going that morning-I thought the terminal forecast for nothing more than rain showers was optimistic. As things worked out, 45 minutes after we landed the radar was showing nothing but dark green and yellow over Centennial Airport.

Oh, I did bank the airplane to look down at Loma, Nebraska-it’s the setting of a fun movie. And I did divert a bit to look at the Pony Express route, the transcontinental railroad and the Lincoln Highway. The history of each in that area is fascinating. Besides, I may be prejudiced, but it’s not right that Route 66 gets all the press-the Lincoln Highway preceded it by decades and goes clear across our country, not just a part of it.

Rick Durden holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation 500 series and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Volume I.