Shawn Perry, the 39-year-old pilot and father who was killed along with his three young children and two coworkers when the Turbo Commander in which they were flying slammed into a sheer mountain cliff near Phoenix the night before Thanksgiving, wasn’t flying the airplane when it crashed, according to the NTSB’s preliminary report.
Rather, Perry was seated in the Turbo Commander’s cabin with his kids when the airplane took off from Falcon Field (FFZ) in Mesa, Arizona, on Nov. 23 bound for Safford, Arizona (SAD), about 110 miles to the southeast. At the controls of the turbine twin was 31-year-old pilot Russell Hardy, co-owner with Perry of Ponderosa Aviation in Safford.
According to the NTSB report, Perry regularly used Ponderosa airplanes to fly his children between their mother’s home in Mesa, Arizona, to his home in Safford and vice versa. On the night of the crash, an FBO lineman who was familiar with the family said the children arrived at FFZ about 15 minutes before their father’s airplane arrived. After the Turbo Commander landed, it was marshaled into a parking spot adjacent to the FBO. The lineman told investigators Perry was in the front left seat and operating the airplane, and another individual, presumed to be Hardy, was in the front right seat.
After shutdown, the father and a third individual, presumed to be Ponderosa mechanic Joseph Hardwick, exited the airplane. Hardy, seated in front right seat, did not exit the airplane. Instead, he remained in the cockpit with a flashlight, accomplishing unknown tasks before repositioning himself to the front left seat.
Perry went into the FBO to escort his children, ages 6, 8 and 9, to the airplane. The pilot in the front left seat remained in that seat, the mechanic seated himself in the front right seat, and Perry and his children buckled themselves into the rear of the airplane. Engine start and taxi-out appeared normal, said the lineman, who marshaled the airplane out of its parking spot.
A review of the recorded communications between the airplane and FFZ Tower revealed that when the pilot requested taxi clearance, he advised the ground controller that he was planning an “eastbound departure,” according to the NTSB. The flight was cleared for takeoff from Runway 4R, and was instructed to maintain runway heading until advised, due to inbound traffic. About 90 seconds later, the tower controller issued a “right turn approved” clearance to the flight.
Review of the preliminary radar data shows that the takeoff roll began about 1826 MST. The airplane began its right turn towards SAD when it was about two miles east of FFZ and climbing through 2,600 feet msl. At about 1828, the airplane reached an altitude of 4,500 feet msl, where it remained, below the Phoenix Class B airspace, and tracked in an essentially straight line until it impacted terrain. The last radar return was received at 1830:56 at the impact location.
Local pilots have been highly critical of a 2008 FAA decision to lower the floor of the Phoenix Class B airspace near the crash site to 5,000 feet, slightly below the height of the tallest terrain in the Superstition Mountains where the Turbo Commander crashed.
The report noted that the airplane, a 1976 Rockwell Turbo Commander, had been purchased by Ponderosa Aviation about a week prior to the accident from a seller in Indiana. There was no mention in the report about whether the airplane carried terrain-alerting safety avionics. Seller records indicate the airplane was equipped with a Honeywell KGP 560 enhanced ground proximity warning system, but whether that equipment was aboard the airplane or functioning properly at the time of the crash is unknown. The report also mentioned that skies were clear with excellent visibility but that the moon had already set by the time of the crash.