It was the kind of day on which checking the weather does not get a pilot very far. The overcast condition was common in the area; local pilots were familiar with it; they knew that the exact degree and height of cloud coverage and the visibility between the hills was unpredictable. Pilots would routinely “sneak out through the pass” north of the departure airport; the clouds usually broke up as you neared the desert. On this day, the weather was following its usual pattern, with the ceiling rising gradually and the visibility improving; quite possibly the clouds may have vanished by later in the afternoon. But the only way to know whether the route out through the pass was passable was to go and have a look.
That is what a police helicopter did that had tried the same route twice that morning. He went out twice, and twice returned. The second time, he progressed almost exactly as far as the Cirrus would, and later pronounced the conditions there “basically zero-zero” and impossible for a VFR “scud run.” The Cirrus arrived an hour later, but if the roofers’ description of clouds and mist moving in from the west was accurate, it may be that the situation had not changed much during that hour.
We can’t know exactly what happened. The report of one witness that the airplane went back and forth “in the clouds” for two to three minutes is not supported by the others, who generally describe it emerging unexpectedly from the clouds at low altitude, apparently out of control.
It’s significant, however, that the crash did not occur near the highway, which runs up the lowest and flattest portion of the wide valley. The accident site was, in fact, 2½ miles north of the highway, where the terrain is irregular and several hundred feet higher. It was also less than a mile and a half west of an airport that was certainly well known to the pilot, since he lived only a few miles from it.
A pilot flying up a valley below an overcast layer might instinctively try to remain where the distance between clouds and ground is greatest. That can be a trap; if you fly up the middle of a narrow valley and have to turn around, you may not have room; it’s better to hug one side, if possible the downwind side because a turn is tighter when made into the wind. But in this case the valley was wide and there would have been ample room to turn back. The highway, furthermore, should have been an excellent navigational aid. Yet the pilot did not follow it.
Accidents of this type, a noninstrument pilot finding himself in instrument weather, occur frequently — perhaps more frequently than any other kind. They get a generic probable cause from the NTSB: “The noninstrument-rated pilot’s improper decision to continue the flight into instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in spatial disorientation and loss of control.” Sometimes the cause is sheer pilot pigheadedness, but not always. In this case, the pilot may have been trying to do the wise and cautious thing.
To judge from the location of the crash site, it’s possible that the pilot found he could not continue, decided to land at the nearby airport and wait out the weather — if worse came to worst, his wife could drive a few miles and pick them up — but then turned away from the highway and toward the airport too early. Perhaps he counted on his GPS getting him there but failed to consider that it might lead him into worse weather. Terrain looks different when you’re low, and a GPS doesn’t know which hills are obscured by clouds or how to plan an escape route. Once the pilot saw what was happening, it may have been too late, or there may have been no room to turn around. Even right decisions sometimes produce wrong results.
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.