On a clear January day in 2018, the 68-year-old sport pilot of a Van’s RV-12 took off from Fort Myers, Florida, bound for Everglades City, a trip of 51 nautical miles. Before taking off, the pilot had requested flight following, but when he was airborne and the tower controller told him to contact departure control, the pilot did not respond. The controller repeated the instruction and, after checking whether the departure controller had heard from the pilot, tried a third time. There was still no response.
A minute later, the departure controller established radio contact with the pilot. Communication did not go smoothly.
Departure controller: “Two-six-two Whiskey Sierra, Fort Meyers, are you up?”
Pilot of 262WS: “Two-six-two Whiskey Sierra.”
Departure: “Two-six-two Whiskey Sierra, radar contact, turn right heading one-seven-zero vector, climb, maintain VFR 2,500.”
Pilot: “Continue my climb to—say again?”
Departure: “Two-six-two Whiskey Sierra, maintain VFR at 2,500.”
Pilot: “Maintain 2,500. Course is now what?”
Departure: “Two-six-two Whiskey Sierra, turn right heading one-seven-zero, maintain VFR at 2,500, vector to get you south of RSW.”
Pilot: “Course one-two-zero, stay at 2,500.”
Departure: “November two-six-two Whiskey Sierra, I don’t have time to talk to you four times per control instruction ‘cause there’s a lot going on. Please listen up. Fly heading one-seven-zero, maintain VFR 2,500, over.”
Pilot: “All right, one-seven—ah, stay at 2,500.”
Departure: “I need a call sign with a control instruction please, two Whiskey Sierra. Verify one-seven-zero heading, 2,500.”
Pilot: “Two-six-two Whiskey Sierra, two-five-zero-zero at one-seven.”
Departure: “Two Whiskey Sierra, sixth time now, heading one-seven-zero.”
Pilot: “Heading is one-seven-zero, Whiskey Sierra, two-six-two Whiskey Sierra.”
Departure: “November two-six-two Whiskey Sierra, your altitude indicates two thousand niner hundred, and you’re restricted to 2,500.”
Pilot: “I’ll [sic] pulling back the power and going down to 2,500.”
Departure: “November two Whiskey Sierra, please use your call sign when you give me the altitude read-back.” Twenty seconds pass. “November two Whiskey Sierra, I need your call sign when you read back the altitude. Verify maintain 2,500.”
Pilot: “I’m at 2,500, two-six-two Whiskey Sierra, one-seven-zero.”
Departure: “Thank you.”
This distracted, fumbling exchange might have passed for an episode of stage fright between a novice pilot and a testy, by-the-book controller. The pilot was not a novice, however. He had been flying for years and had reported 530 hours on his most recent insurance application.
The pilot checked in with approach control. After a few minutes, the controller issued a warning for opposite-direction traffic at 6 miles, and the pilot acknowledged. Six seconds later, he transmitted: “Mayday, mayday!”
The RV went down in a densely wooded area. The wreckage path, through tall trees, was 700 feet long and 100 feet wide, oriented about 60 degrees to the right of course. The first items in the debris field were the left wing and fragments of the cockpit canopy; the wing had folded upward from overstress and shattered the canopy. The rest of the wreckage was fragmented from plowing through numerous trees. The pilot was wearing a five-point safety harness, which separated from the airframe.
A Dynon EFIS recorded several parameters of flight data. It told a strange tale.
For several minutes, the pilot had been gradually descending. When the traffic warning came, he was at 1,700 feet. He acknowledged. There was a slight pitch up, followed by a negative 3-G push over to a 45-degree dive. Manifold pressure dropped toward idle at the moment the pilot called mayday, then returned to full throttle. The airplane rolled inverted, its descent rate approaching 10,000 fpm. The left wing failed two seconds before the end of the recording.
In a criminal proceeding, a judge may determine when testimony about a defendant’s past actions and demeanor is admissible. For the National Transportation Safety Board, it always is, and in this case, there was no lack of it.
The pilot was a lawyer with a checkered history. According to an article in the Portland Oregonian, he had been disbarred in California. He had been denied admission to the bar in Oregon, where he lived, on grounds of his “moral character.” He had been arrested after an altercation with a judge in an elevator and sentenced to probation and anger-management treatment.
Another thread in the pilot’s life was a persistent propensity for claiming military honors that he did not really possess. He had allegedly served decades earlier as an enlisted man on an aircraft carrier—if a long interview he gave to an oral-history collector for the Library of Congress can be believed. But he had carried a pattern of “valor theft” to the extreme of using photo-editing software to insert his face onto the uniformed body of a much-decorated captain. A few days before the fatal accident, he had been released from jail in Virginia, where he had been serving a sentence of several months for violating a protective order with respect to one of the people—he called them “terrorists”—who were investigating his military impostures.
A turbulent personal life is sometimes said to correlate with an elevated propensity for accidents.
But there was still more. The pilot suffered from a host of medical conditions that he had not reported to the FAA, including depression, PTSD (thought to be related to his legal entanglements), an enlarged heart and coronary artery disease, and he was using several psychoactive medicines that bore warnings against driving or operating machinery.
According to the NTSB, the cause of the accident was “the pilot’s unsafe maneuvering and exceedance of the airplane’s operating limitations, which resulted in an in-flight failure of the left wing. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s underlying psychologic or psychiatric disease.”
“Unsafe maneuvering” is a mild description for a negative 3-G, 45-degree dive from an altitude of 1,700 feet. Furthermore, the failure of the left wing, which must have been due to a sudden effort to pull up, was incidental; even if the wing had not failed, the airplane would not have recovered from the dive.
The NTSB struggled to frame its analysis of the accident. The suddenness and violence of the final plunge could suggest a precipitous physical crisis, but the autopsy found no sign of aneurysm, stroke or infarct. To judge from the Dynon’s altitude trace, the airplane was being hand-flown, and so the cause was not a runaway autopilot. “The exact cause,” the NTSB conceded, “could not be determined, given the lack of mechanical anomalies or weather phenomena that could explain the accident sequence.”
One sentence in the accident report, however, contained a hint of an otherwise unelaborated possibility.
“His unreported psychiatric disease,” the Board wrote, “if not well-controlled, could have led to intentionally unsafe maneuvering.” Exactly what sort of “intention” the Board meant, it did not say.
This story appeared in the September 2021 issue of Flying Magazine