The pilot-owner of a Cessna R172 — a six-cylinder, 195 hp version of the 172, based on the French-built Reims Rocket — was en route from Everett, Washington, to Albuquerque when he and his wife found themselves weathered in at Roseburg, Oregon. The pilot, who did not have an instrument rating, inquired at an FBO whether an instrument-qualified pilot was available to fly the couple to New Mexico.
The pilot who came forward had 342 hours. He had the instrument rating and was building time while working on his commercial ticket. His logbook recorded nearly 60 hours of simulated instrument time and 16 hours of actual. He made a hop around the pattern to familiarize himself with the airplane, topped the tanks and filed an IFR flight plan to Reno, Nevada, via the Medford and Klamath Falls VORs, estimating 2:54 with the initial segment at 7,000 feet. Since the weather was better beyond Reno, they agreed the pilot would return from Reno and the owner and his wife would continue to Albuquerque on their own. It was a win-win; the owner and his wife would complete their trip, and the instrument pilot would build time at no cost to himself.
The three took off at 3:07 p.m., the owner in the right front seat. At 3:13, climbing through 5,800 feet, they made their first appearance on Seattle Center radar. Meandering a bit to avoid weather, they eventually climbed to 11,000 feet and, after 44 minutes airborne, canceled IFR but requested VFR flight following. At the same time, they began to descend to a new cruising altitude of 7,600 feet. The flight continued uneventfully, but an hour after takeoff, and shortly after passing the Oregon-California border, the pilot advised Seattle he was changing the destination to Susanville, in the Sierra foothills 67 miles northwest of Reno. Eighteen minutes later, Seattle advised the pilot of “clear weather to Susanville” and terminated radar services because coverage was spotty in the mountainous area.
The 172’s 1200 squawk continued to put in sporadic appearances on Center radar, its heading varying from south to east. The last recorded return, coming from a point well east of Susanville, reported an altitude of 9,100 feet. Apparently the plan of landing in Susanville had been abandoned. What happened then is unclear. A woman in Herlong, California, 29 nm southeast of Susanville and 41 nm north of Reno, reported that she had heard an airplane circling to the south-southeast for a long time; the weather was poor that day, she said, with rain, snow at the higher elevations and cloud layers obscuring the mountaintops. But there were no sightings of the 172, nor any further radio communications.
It never reached Susanville or Reno.
Three days later, the pilot’s family reported him missing, and that evening the wreckage of the yellow-and-white Cessna was spotted at the 6,400-foot level in hilly terrain a few miles from Reno-Stead Airport (KRTS), where the annual air races are held. All three occupants perished in the crash. Examination of the engine disclosed nothing to suggest a mechanical problem prior to impact. It appeared from the position of the flap actuator that the flap had been deflected 5 to 10 degrees, and the elevator trim seemed to be at its maximum nose-up setting.
The National Transportation Safety Board found the probable cause of the accident to have been the pilot’s decision to continue VFR flight into instrument conditions, “which resulted in a controlled collision with terrain.”
This is standard NTSB language and is frequently used. Usually, however, it is a noninstrument pilot, continuing VFR into deteriorating conditions and deciding too late — if at all — to turn back, who earns the “continued VFR into instrument conditions” verdict. In this case, the pilot had the rating, was current, had filed and then canceled an IFR flight plan and, since he was flying under the gaze of the airplane’s owner, probably felt some motivation to give a good account of himself and do things by the book.
If the finding of probable cause was on the sketchy side, so was the information available to accident investigators.