(April 2011) If the souls of the pilots whose untimely ends are chronicled in NTSB accident reports could be assembled for a focus group on accident prevention, some would say of their final flights, “Yes, I was really asking for it. I should have seen that accident coming from a mile away.” Others would still be scratching their heads and wondering “What went wrong? It should have been so simple!”
In the latter category, I suspect, would be the pilot of a Van’s RV-10 who crashed in April 2008 on the way from Lebanon, Tennessee, to Lakeland, Florida, for the Sun ’n Fun fly-in.
There were two private pilots in the airplane. One, 63 years old, had aircraft single-engine land and instrument ratings. His total time was 1,770 hours, including almost 360 hours in actual instrument conditions. He was the owner of a 1976 Cardinal in which he had logged 130 hours of actual instrument flying in the past seven years and 6.4 hours in the preceding six months.
The other pilot, the builder of the airplane, was 64. His total time was 526 hours, of which 68 were in the RV-10, 5.2 in the preceding 90 days. He did not have an instrument rating.
The airplane had logged 75 hours since receiving its special airworthiness certificate 15 months earlier. It was equipped with a glass panel consisting of a Dynon EFIS and dual Grand Rapids MFDs but had no vacuum — or electrically driven — attitude instruments.
The RV-10 left Lebanon in midmorning. Southern Georgia and eastern Alabama lay under the influence of a stationary front; stratus and stratocumulus clouds covered the region, with tops generally around 4,500 feet and ceilings of 1,000 feet or better. Visibilities below the clouds were eight miles or more.
The NTSB could not establish which pilot was in which seat, but since an instrument flight plan had been filed, the instrument-rated pilot was assumed to be the pilot flying.
The distance from Lebanon to Lakeland is about 550 nm. Near the halfway point, cruising in the clear at 9,300 feet, the pilot checked in with Atlanta Approach and requested a VOR approach to Weedon Field at Eufaula, Alabama, on the Georgia border. Thirteen minutes later, the controller cleared the flight to descend to 4,000, and when the RV-10 was 20 miles from the airport he cleared it for the approach. The pilot responded, “We may, I think we are going to fly the whole approach here, I think we’ll let you know when ... ” The rest of the transmission was unreadable.
The intent of this somewhat garbled statement was probably that, rather than come straight in, the pilot would fly to the VOR, which is on the airport, and make the procedure turn, and that he would advise the controller when turning inbound on the final approach. But instead he began a descending right turn to a heading of 090 and then transmitted, without explanation, “We’re going to have to come up with an alternate plan here.”
He then requested and received vectors to Auburn-Opelika airport, 30-some miles behind him; but while on the way back northward toward Auburn, he changed his mind again and requested vectors to Columbus, Georgia, explaining that he wanted an airport with an ILS. Actually, Auburn has an ILS; but the controller vectored the flight as requested and cleared it for the ILS Runway 6 approach at Columbus.
Shortly thereafter, the airplane flew across the ILS and also triggered a low altitude alert. The controller relayed the altitude warning to the pilot, who acknowledged both errors. The controller then told the pilot to climb to 3,000 feet and turn right to a westerly heading.
The pilot said, “Do you have any location that the weather is 2,000 feet or better?”
The controller replied that the pilot could consider checking the weather at Auburn, and the pilot replied, “OK, we’ll do that.”
That was his last transmission. Two minutes later, the RV-10 crashed in wooded terrain near Seale, Alabama, 17 nm from the Columbus airport. The final moments of the flight, recorded on a handheld GPS in the airplane, told a tale of pilot disorientation. The airplane first descended in a right turn from 2,700 feet to 1,300, then zoomed back upward to 2,770 before again starting to descend. It then apparently entered a spin, finally crashing only 400 feet horizontally from the last GPS fix, recorded when it was still almost 2,000 feet above the ground.
During the 14 minutes that it was in the clouds, the RV-10 had deviated as much as 400 feet above and 1,200 feet below its assigned altitude. The controller had relayed two low-altitude alerts to the pilot and told him on five different occasions that he was not on his assigned heading.