The morning dawned misty and overcast; even low-lying areas to the east, which the marine stratus layer often did not reach, were reporting 100 feet and a quarter-mile. By noon, however, conditions at the airport had improved to 1,800 broken, 2,800 overcast and 10 miles visibility. A Cirrus SR22, whose destination lay to the east, took off just before noon and headed for the pass, intending to follow the highway to the desert before turning eastward. The elevation of the departure airport was 800 feet, so that the overcast layer was at 3,600. The Cirrus initially climbed to 3,300 feet and then immediately descended back to 2,200.
The front seat passenger snapped a picture through the windshield. Clouds obscured the mountaintops on both sides of the pass, but on the whole it didn’t look bad.
Passing through the first range of hills, the Cirrus, hidden now from radar, proceeded along the highway. The area was very familiar to the pilot; in fact, shortly after radar lost him he flew past his own home.
A few minutes later and a few miles farther along, a woman was riding her horse along a dirt road. It was misty, with low clouds. Hearing the loud sound of an approaching engine overhead, she looked up to see an airplane come out of the clouds upside down. Its windshield was visible as it passed over her. It crashed behind a barn; a plume of flames rose up.
Another witness said that she heard the airplane’s engine making “oscillating noises” for “two to three minutes” as if it were going back and forth in the clouds.
When it came out of the clouds, she said, it was angled downward.
Two roofers working about a quarter-mile south of the accident site saw the crash. The weather was cloudy, they said, with wind, fog and low clouds moving in from the west. To the north, the visibility was good under the clouds, but the ridges were hidden. They heard and saw the airplane north-northwest of them; it passed behind a hill, the engine grew louder, and it came into view again. It made a “hard, descending right-hand turn” and dove steeply into the ground “like a missile.”
The three occupants of the Cirrus — the pilot, his visiting 30-year-old daughter and a woman friend of hers who took the right front seat because she had never been in a private airplane before — died instantly in the crash. The intense fire that followed reduced the composite airframe to ashes; but the passenger’s digital camera, and its snapshot of the cloud-roofed pass ahead, somehow survived the inferno.
The pilot, 51 years old, a marketing manager for a local utility, had renewed his medical on the very morning of the accident. On his application he reported 285 hours total time. He had been a private pilot for six years and was now a partner in the Cirrus. He did not have an instrument rating. The instructor who originally taught him, and with whom he had done a biennial a few months before the accident, described him as smart and quick to understand things, but also unhurried and “not a pushy person.” He knew the weather requirements for VFR flight well, knew how to get weather information and had “breezed through” the biennial oral. The instructor said that, out of all of his students, “this [accident] was a shocker.”