(February 2012) At first glance the NTSB report seemed like a typical “non-instrument-rated pilot takes off into IMC conditions” accident. The pilot had accumulated close to 400 hours during the five years since he had earned his private pilot certificate, mostly in the accident airplane. He was eager to depart on a trip that he had been planning for six months, but the weather would not cooperate. Two days in a row the pilot had not been able to depart due to low stratus clouds that blanketed the New Jersey area. Finally, on the third day after his planned date of departure, the forecast held a glimmer of hope. Low stratus clouds still prevailed throughout the area, and the 300-foot overcast ceiling was below the published minimums for an instrument approach into the airport, but conditions were forecast to gradually improve later in the day.
The pilot was not alone in his desire to depart. The NTSB report states that several other pilots, including some who were instrument-rated, were either in the airport office or elsewhere on the airport waiting for the conditions to improve so they could depart. Shortly after 10 a.m., witnesses observed the pilot and his passenger fueling his airplane. At that point there was still a solid overcast at 200 to 300 feet, with no holes and no evidence of the sun starting to break through the overcast. Everyone assumed the pilot would return the airplane to the hangar after it had been fueled. However, a few minutes later the witnesses saw the airplane take off and quickly climb into the overcast. People in the maintenance hangar with a radio tuned to the local approach control frequency heard the pilot request traffic advisories from the controller.
For close to 10 minutes, people on or near the airport heard and occasionally saw the airplane flying in the vicinity of the airport, and reported that it sounded like the airplane was continually changing speed and direction. One individual who lived close to the airport was questioning the judgment of a pilot who would do aerobatics in the clouds, and he then sent his daughter into their house for safety when he observed the airplane fly over their neighbor’s house at a very low altitude. Eventually people in the area heard a loud thump and ran toward the sound to find the airplane wreckage and two bodies in the woods behind their homes.
Typically that is all we learn about an accident, but in this case, both the pilot’s wife and son had flown with him on multiple occasions. His wife told the NTSB that her husband “would only fly in the clouds if he could get out of the clouds immediately.” She said he “sometimes flew through clouds that were 1,000 to 2,000 feet thick” but that “he never kept me in the clouds for more than two minutes.” She also stated that the autopilot was functional, but that he rarely used it, and that he would hand-fly the airplane through the clouds. She also said she was “confused why he would have trouble in the clouds.”
I realized that this accident provides an amazing insight into the progression that is likely typical for many accidents that result from pilots breaking the rules and/or flying beyond their abilities. Perhaps his first experience of flying through a cloud layer was during one of his flying lessons, with his instructor providing an unfortunate example of how to not let a few clouds keep him from accomplishing the flight. Or maybe it happened later as a licensed private pilot, when he was ready to take off, but there was a thin layer of clouds between the ground and the blue sky above, and the pilot easily popped through the cloud layer.
On a subsequent flight the pilot was faced with a little bit thicker cloud layer, with no holes that clearly showed the thickness of the layer. However, since he was able to handle the previous situation with no problem, he went ahead and flew through this slightly thicker cloud layer. Step by step he progressed down this slippery slope until he was taking off when he knew he would have to fly for several minutes through thousands of feet of clouds, and would even request flight following from ATC to try to avoid colliding with an airplane on an instrument clearance. He also managed to convince his wife that this was perfectly safe.