Aftermath: Good Intentions
The weather on the route of the flight was dominated by a low centered in eastern Utah and a stationary front extending southwestward into Southern California. Conditions behind the front were expected to be a mix of VMC and IMC with overcast or partly cloudy skies, areas of rain and snow, some mountain obscuration and a freezing level around 7,000 feet. Because much of the flight took place over remote and mountainous terrain, local ceiling and visibility observations were scarce.
Three airmets for the area of the flight warned of mountain obscuration, moderate turbulence and moderate icing between 7,000 and 11,000 feet. The pilot, who had received a DUATS briefing, must have been aware of the possibility of icing, and his decision to climb to 11,000 feet before the minimum en route altitude required it could suggest a desire to stay clear of the clouds; but it may also have been due to a good tailwind. His subsequent canceling of the instrument flight plan, on the other hand, suggests the cloud tops were getting higher and the pilot decided there was sufficient room to continue between the overcast and the mountains. He descended to 7,600 feet, well below the MEA, but continued to receive flight following for some time before radar contact was lost.
The decision to switch destinations is puzzling because it was made when the flight was still far from Susanville, so it cannot have been simply an attempt to get away from worsening weather. Susanville, in the western foothills of the Sierras, would not have been a very helpful place for the couple trying to reach Albuquerque, nor for the pilot wanting to get back to Roseburg. The reasons for going to Susanville, and for subsequently reversing that decision, can’t be known, but it’s clear that at some point the pilot — or pilots, since the owner in the right seat might plausibly have had something to say about the matter — must have thought the weather looked good enough in the direction of Reno to make it through.
The report of an airplane circling for some time south of Herlong — if it was the same airplane — might indicate an effort to climb, spiraling, through a gap in the clouds. The highway from Herlong to Reno stays below 5,000 feet, however, and at the time of the accident Reno had a broken overcast at 6,300 feet msl. The NTSB report does not indicate whether the pilot had a VFR chart for the Reno area with him. If he didn’t, he may not have realized there was a good low-altitude approach from the north.
If he did climb higher and find himself unable to stay out of cloud, he could still have requested an IFR clearance into Reno — unless he’d had the bad luck to stray into cloud and then rapidly picked up a load of ice. The deflected flap and the nose-up trim may suggest a pilot’s desperate attempt to maintain altitude in an iced-up airplane — but that hypothesis is scarcely more convincing than any other.
Ironically, what set the fatal chain of events in motion was the airplane owner’s sensible and responsible decision to seek a better-qualified pilot to get him through the area of bad weather. When that pilot canceled his instrument fight plan and continued VFR, the owner may have reflected that he had made a bad bargain. How bad, however, he could not yet know.
The instrument-rated pilot had little actual instrument time. How much, if any, of it was in mountains in winter, we don’t know. A more experienced pilot might have hesitated to undertake the flight, knowing the wild card here was icing. You can’t safely fly a 172 for three hours over inhospitable, unpopulated terrain in IMC when the forecast warns of moderate icing in clouds. Sometimes you make it, sometimes you don’t. You may learn some valuable practical lessons — ones of which neither pilot, in this case, would be able to make future use.
This article is based on the NTSB’s report 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.