Aftermath: Into the Soup

The approach was better executed than it was planned.

Aftermath Artwork
Accident analysis that goes behind and beyond the NTSB report.Flying

The following is an edited transcript of communications between 
Colorado Springs Approach Control and Tower and the pilot of a Mooney M20E arriving on an IFR flight plan from Rapid City, South Dakota.

869: Springs Approach, Mooney 79869, checking in 10,000 with Sierra.

APP: 
 Mooney 79869, Springs Approach, 
expect an ILS Runway 17L.

869: Expect ILS 17L, 869.

APP: 
 Mooney 869, Runway 17L RVR touchdown 
1,600, rollout 1,200. Is that gonna be good enough for ya?

869: Mooney 869, affirm.

The airport lay under a blanket of freezing fog. The reported weather was 100 and 1/4, while ILS minimums were 200 and 1/2, or at least 1,800 feet RVR.

APP: 
 Mooney 869, Runway 17L RVR touchdown 
1,000, rollout 1,200.

869: Mooney 869, roger.

APP: 

Mooney 869, here’s a pilot report for ya. 
We just had an MD-80 depart Runway 17L, 
departing to the north, and in the clouds he 
got light clear ice, and that again was an 

MD-82, actually.

869: Mooney 869, understand, and, uh, the plan is we'll attempt the ILS 17L. If we start picking up anything we're gonna pop back up and go and shoot a missed, but if not we're gonna continue down.

APP: 
 Mooney 869, 2 miles from AWONE, turn 
left 190, maintain 9,000 till established on the localizer, cleared ILS Runway 17L approach.

869: Left to 190, maintain 9,000 till established, cleared ILS 17L approach, Mooney 869.

APP: 
 Mooney 869, Runway 17L touchdown RVR
800, rollout 1,000.

869: 69.

APP: 
Mooney 869, just had another departure, 
CRJ just departed, reported light rime ice 
in the clouds. As soon as he rotated he 
started getting it.

869: Mooney 869.

APP: Mooney 869, contact Tower 133.15.

869: 133.15 for 869 ... Springs Tower, Mooney 79869 inbound for ILS Runway 17L approach.

TWR: Mooney 78869 [sic], Springs Tower.

869: Mooney 869.

TWR: 
And Mooney 869, runway was reported
 dry approximately 11 minutes ago. Taxiway connectors reported fair braking action.

869: 869 copies ... glideslope intercept, down to 63 or so.

TWR: Roger. Say flight conditions.

869: Currently VFR on top right now, I'll let you know when we get into the soup.

TWR: Roger.

869: Mooney 869, in at 8,500 indicated.

TWR: 
And Mooney 869, altimeter 3019, 
verify altitude.

869: Mooney 869 currently going through 8,100 with 3019 set.

TWR: 
Roger ... Runway 17L touchdown RVR 1,000, 
rollout 1,000, wind 150 at 9.

869: Mooney 869 is going missed. We got down to 6,400 and nothing.

TWR: 

Mooney 869 roger, fly runway heading, 
maintain 9,000.

869: 869.

TWR: 
Mooney 869, radio check ... Mooney 869, 
Springs Tower.

The Mooney had gone silent. The airport immediately closed to arrivals and departures, and ground personnel began to patrol the runways and taxiways. At 12:10 they found the burning wreckage beside the approach end of the runway. It was confined within a small area and was “consistent with a low-airspeed and high angle of attack impact.” Both the pilot and his passenger were dead.

The National Transportation Safety Board traced the accident to “the pilot’s decision to initiate an approach into weather conditions where the ceiling and visibility were below the minimums for the approach, and where reported icing existed in an airplane not certified for flight in icing conditions, and his failure to maintain control of the airplane during the missed approach.”

The pilot, 25, was a U.S. Air Force B-1B pilot who had been rated “exceptionally qualified” on a flight review eight months earlier. There’s a big difference between 
a Mooney M20 and a supersonic swing-wing bomber with a gross weight of nearly half a million pounds, and pilots of “big iron” are often awkward in small 
GA airplanes; but this pilot had owned the Mooney for five months and logged 58 hours in it. He was also 
a civilian instrument flight instructor. As is apparent from the transcript, his demeanor was professional; 
he flew the ILS accurately. In short, the approach seemed to have been a textbook one — except for its unfortunate conclusion.

One thing in the online docket that is remarkable is a photograph of the propeller. Two of its three blades are visible, and, while they are bent back near the root, neither shows the tip damage, scraping, twisting and curling that usually occur when an airplane hits the ground under power.

Under Part 91, a pilot is entitled to “have a look” even when the reported weather is below minimums. In this case, however, there were two reasons not to do so. One was the series of dismal RVR reports, which made a miss nearly certain. The other was the reported icing of departing larger aircraft; anything more than a trace of ice would have made a successful approach even less likely and the miss more difficult. Since two large jets reported icing immediately after takeoff, it’s likely that the Mooney encountered it too.

If there had been no risk, or only a minute risk of 
icing, it might have been worth giving the approach 
a try however dim the prospect of success. If, on 
the other hand, the chance of completing the approach had been good, then the risk of icing might have 
been worth running. But the combination of a high likelihood of a bad thing — icing — combined with the low likelihood of a good one — landing — made for a double bad gamble.

The NTSB attributes the accident to both the pilot’s judgment and his performance. The possibility of some contributing malfunction, undetectable by investigators, is not mentioned. Nevertheless, the statement in the accident report that the airplane “was not equipped with deicing or anti-icing equipment” suggests that it may not have had functioning pitot heat. It’s possible that rapid ice buildup, combined with loss of airspeed indication, could have led to a stall as the pilot attempted to rotate into a climb.

This is only speculation, of course. The only conclusion we are entitled to draw from the slender evidence in the accident report is that even an exceptionally qualified pilot can sometimes get it wrong.