Tuesday, November 14th, 2023, three pilots took to the skies in what appeared to be a sightseeing flight of the nearby mountains. Allegedly having completed a similar flight (or flights), it appears as though this one may have started out routine. Good weather, airplane in generally good condition, and a few friends not too terribly detracted from anything on the IMSAFE checklist. Somehow, only one of the three pilots still walks about, while sadly the other two perished in a tragic accident that bears an uncanny resemblance to thousands just like it.
Publicly available downloads of their fateful flight shows an aircraft being flown with an abundance of bravado straight off the runway in Spanish Fork directly into Slate Canyon. No observations into the canyon prior to entry, no overhead observation, no circling to gain altitude. Straight into the canyon. Three pilots. One hundred and forty-five horsepower. Zero chance.
A wise professor of mine once told me (and every class he taught) that “if you want to be the best pilot in the world, kill yourself in a plane crash. They’ll all be saying it at your funeral.” As if he’s lived through these tragedies in his own life, the Facebook posts, news article comments, and (likely) eulogies echo similar sentiments.
What drives me to my oft-worn journals this evening is not any sort of “I told you so” but rather an important takeaway that as pilots we continue to do the same dumb stuff over and over and for some reason we sit and wonder why it continues.
At first the community thought the three were careless pilots and took unnecessary risks. Friends and classmates speak on the contrary, and while investigations into their past will surely find something off the beaten path, I believe that we can become more than our past, and an absence of risqué social media content from the three lead me to look elsewhere for any causal factors.
Weather is always something brought up in these discussions. While there are some repositories available for investigative weather analysis of reported and forecasted conditions, the absence of instrumentation in Slate Canyon (and a general lack of abilities to predict weather in the mountains) rules weather out as the sole reason they went down. Even on a good day, a well-loaded and underpowered airplane would have had difficulty completing the apparent mission. I could only imagine what may have transpired if any downdrafts or turbulent air were experienced.
Having been an accident in the mountains, cries for mountain flying training are the next loudest voices in this space. As a proponent of pilots seeking instruction and experience prior to flying in the mountains, I start to see myself joining on the bandwagon. Then a voice inside my head starts increasing in volume. “Rule books are paper. They will not cushion a sudden meeting of stone and metal.” Captain Gann seems to always have the right words in these situations.
I’ve known many pilots who took that first step in seeking this wisdom from the elder statesmen (and women) in the backcountry. Thousands of dollars invested in books, guides, dual instruction, and fly-out jamborees later, those hours spent either in the same cockpit or off the wing of those who literally wrote the books on mountain flying are sometimes proven worthless with twisted wreckages of CarbonCubs and human bodies across the mountains. Even the proverbial patron saint of mountain flying, Sparky Imeson, author of the Mountain Flying Bible, was found dead inside his Skywagon days after one hunter observed him flying recklessly in the mountains.
More than completion certificates, more than the dual given and CFI signatures in our logbooks, what we need more than anything is to start making better decisions before, during, and after flying. Experience means nothing when experience doesn’t influence your decision making process for the better, and while we all (yes, all) contend with a lack of experience, the only tool left on our belt is time.
Looking back at the flight path of the accident, it appears there was no consideration of time. In less than the time it takes to read this, they took off from Spanish Fork, flew abeam Provo’s Class D airspace, and made a hard 90° turn to the right and met their demise. Tragically finding themselves likely out of airspeed, altitude, and ideas, the plane came to rest between near-vertical granite outcroppings, truly the least ideal situation the three (and their loved ones) ever envisioned.
Certifications, hours in the logbook, experience in the airplane, the local area, mean nothing when they’re not put to use. If Imeson taught us anything outside his books, it’s that same sentiment that Captain Gann immortalized in his classic Fate is the Hunter.
If there’s anything we can learn from yet another tragic CFIT story, it’s that we need to be making better decisions. We laugh when we read about the threats of flying perfectly good airplanes into mountains in the manuals, then cry when we have one happen right in our backyard. Between the two tragically infinitely-repeating events is where we must grow. That time that I spoke of earlier is on our side, even during a flight like this one. Moments spent surveying the canyon, the weather, and the current state of the aircraft may have shallowed out that fateful turn to the east and started the development of a more favorable outcome.
The time is now to not only hold ourselves accountable for making better decisions, but those we associate ourselves with. Even the ringleader of the Flying Cowboys, the ones who brought careless and reckless into the mountains, agrees that he too was lucky his dumb decisions didn’t kill him, and now finds himself not only saying no to taking chance with fate, but telling his friends they shouldn’t either.
One thing we can all agree on is that between takeoff and tragedy there was ample time for the three pilots to speak up and make better decisions. Another thing we can agree on is that no flight is worth risking our lives for. Thorough reviews of our intended flights, careful consideration of the potential threats that may be experienced, the mitigation strategies to overcome them, and mustering the fortitude to tell our friends, our loved ones, and even ATC “no” are things we need to start putting into practice to put the brakes on this never-ending accident cycle.
Whether it be ourselves, our communities we find ourselves in, or the revered mentors we confide in, much like the wisdom of Smokey Bear, only you (the PIC) can prevent CFIT accidents. Take that first step today to start making better decisions on the ground so we can enjoy better memories in the air. My heart breaks for these young men and their families.