From the precision with which the airplane held both heading and altitude early in the approach, it seems likely that it had an autopilot and that the pilot was using at least heading hold, and possibly both heading and altitude holds. Instructed by the controller to turn to a heading of 250, the pilot did just that. Unfortunately, a 30-degree right crosswind, possibly of 30 to 40 knots, was blowing across the localizer, pushing the Saratoga to the left. That it ended up flying almost exactly parallel to the localizer was accidental, but it had the effect that the unfortunate pilot, who apparently was waiting for the localizer needle to center to start his descent, instead saw it drift inexorably away to the right.
He was about 3.2 miles from the runway and 1,800 feet above it when he apparently turned off the autopilot and began to descend. The required descent angle was six degrees — not impossible, but not what you would call a “stabilized approach” either. Now his heading began to wander. When the controller instructed him to climb, he leveled out but did not gain altitude. Sound spectrum analysis of his radio transmissions suggested an increase in engine rpm to maximum, hinting, perhaps, at an airplane straining to overcome a load of ice.
The pilot had flown into known icing conditions — note the word conditions, which implies that it is the possibility or likelihood of icing, not the verified presence of icing, that is meant — in an airplane not approved for them. Perhaps that is why he did not report icing to the controller. At the point that he asked for a 360, his situation was dire but not unrecoverable. He could have declared the emergency, kept his speed up, made the 360-degree turn, taken a steep cut to the localizer, and worried later about justifying himself to the FAA.
But such a maneuver would have required that he be mentally oriented with respect to the ILS, and his flight track shows that he wasn’t. The extent of his IFR experience was unknown — his logbook burned up in the crash — but his conduct of the ILS approach suggests that he had not flown a lot of them solo in serious IMC weather. When you have 700 hours total time and you are iced up and disoriented and a controller is telling you urgently to climb in an airplane that won’t do it, clear tactical thinking and smooth, deliberate flying go out the window. That’s why it’s not a bad idea to bring a little cowardice to the planning of a flight. Count on it: When things are at their worst, you won’t be at your best.
This article is based on NTSB reports of the accident and is intended to bring the issues raised to our readers’ attention. It is not intended to judge or to reach any definitive conclusions about the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any aircraft or accessory.