It was an accident waiting to happen, say local pilots. The crash of a Turbo Commander in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains on Thanksgiving Eve is reigniting debate over a controversial 2007 redesign of the airspace surrounding Phoenix that many say jeopardizes safety.
Video footage purporting to capture the accident as it happened shows the airplane flying straight and level near the edge of the Phoenix Class B airspace before slamming into the sheer face of a cliff and exploding. All six on board were killed, including three young children.
The FAA less than five years ago lowered a portion of the Phoenix Class B airspace from 8,000 feet to 5,000 feet and extended it to a radius of 25 miles, a change that put its floor below the height of the tallest peak in the Superstitions, which is 5,057 feet. The Twin Commander hit terrain that rose to about 5,000 feet a few hundred feet below a ridgeline, according to early reports. The twin was on a southeasterly heading after departing Mesa's Falcon Field.
Accident investigators will undoubtedly focus on the roles the airspace redesign and dark night may have played in the crash, as well as CFIT as a possible cause.
The 1976 Turbo Commander 690A, N690SM, was equipped with a Bendix/King KGP 560 terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS), according to owner records. Turbine-powered airplanes with six or more passenger seats are required to carry such safety gear, meaning the accident airplane by regulation should have had a functioning TAWS on board.
Pilot Shawn Perry, 39, was reportedly highly experienced in Turbo Commanders and knew the area well. He was chief of operations for Ponderosa Aviation of Safford, Arizona, a company that operates nearly two dozen piston and turbine Commanders. Also on board were Perry’s three children, ranging in age from 6 to 9, Ponderosa pilot Russell Hardy, 31, and mechanic Joseph Hardwick, 22.
AOPA warned in 2006 that the Phoenix Class B redesign would put the floor of controlled airspace too close to the Superstition Mountains, located east of the city. At the time, AOPA wrote the FAA to warn there would be “literally nowhere for GA pilots to transition on the east side of PHX” while “the lack of GA services from Phoenix Tracon makes it impossible to transit within the Class B airspace area.”
NTSB investigators have been dispatched to the crash scene.