Aftermath: Punching Through

Clouds are mostly harmless, but sometimes they turn on you.

Santa Paula Airport
Santa Paula Airport in California.Scott Bateman/Google Maps

Santa Paula Airport, in Southern California, lies between two mountain ridges oriented generally east-west. The closer of them, a couple of miles south of the runway, rises 2,000 feet above the airport elevation. On an August morning in 2015, a low stratus layer had crept up the valley from the Pacific, covering the airport. Fifteen hundred feet deep, it would thin and eventually burn off, probably by midmorning.

The pilot, 82, of a Cessna P337G, a pressurized Skymaster, wanted to get to California City, in the desert north of Los Angeles, to have his annual signed off by a mechanic there. He had more than 3,000 hours, held an airframe and power plant mechanic’s license himself and had a commercial license but no instrument rating. He was in good health and did not use any medications.

At 9 in the morning, the 337 took off from Runway 22. An airport employee familiar with the heights of nearby terrain said the ceiling was about 300 feet. He watched the 337 as it disappeared into the low clouds, then reappeared, made a tight left turn and proceeded northeastward along the riverbed between the runway and the foothills. The pilot had not yet retracted the landing gear. The watcher thought the departure sufficiently unusual, in light of the low ceiling, that he turned on a VHF radio to listen for an ELT signal.

At around 2 in the afternoon, an employee of an oil-extraction facility high on the mountain south of the airport noticed some unfamiliar debris and went to investigate it. It turned out to be the wreckage of an airplane.

The 337 had struck the mountainside 1,223 feet above sea level, about 1,000 feet above the runway elevation and less than 3 miles from the airport. The debris trail was aligned generally southward. For some reason, the National Transportation Safety Board’s analysis characterizes this direction as “consistent with the pilot attempting to return to the airport.” In fact, if the pilot had intended to return to the airport, he would have turned left, not right, and would not have been at 1,223 feet msl.

The NTSB’s 11-page description of the wreckage doesn’t mention whether the landing gear was up or down, but photographs suggest it was down at the time of impact.

The NTSB attributed the accident to “the non-instrument-rated pilot’s decision to conduct a visual flight in instrument meteorological conditions.” I suspect that this analysis, while not false, omits some nuances. For one thing, this was a highly experienced pilot who most likely knew how to handle an airplane in IMC. Lack of an instrument rating does not necessarily imply lack of instrument-flying ability. Climbing through a stratus layer is the most elementary of IFR operations. His wife and son both “thought that it would have been likely that the pilot would have tried to get above the fog layer to continue the flight to California City.” In other words, he had probably done it before.

If this were the case, why did he make the fatal turn to the south, which is the one direction that a pilot leaving Santa Paula would absolutely not go?

The 337 had struck the mountainside 1,223 feet above sea level, about 1,000 feet above the runway elevation and less than 3 miles from the airport.

I can’t know, obviously. But it does strike me that a P337 with one aboard ought to be able to punch through a 1,500-foot stratus deck in little more than one minute. The NTSB said the condition of the wreckage suggested that the airplane had been flying “pattern speed” at impact. In that case, it took about two minutes to travel from the witness’s last sighting on the downwind leg to the crash location, climbing at only 500 fpm.

I have had, and I suppose many other pilots have had, the experience of forgetting to retract the landing gear and then being puzzled by the poor climb rate. You naturally associate climb rate with power, and so you spend some time thinking something is wrong with an engine or with the power settings before you finally discover that it’s the gear that’s holding you back. Perhaps that happened, and in the distraction of figuring out what was wrong the pilot lost awareness of his heading.

But it’s equally possible that he saw a bright spot in the clouds — a “sucker hole” — and turned toward it. Stratus decks are often thin where they touch mountains. It’s hard to believe, however, that anything would induce a pilot familiar with the area to turn toward the mountains south of the airport. They are an intimidating presence, even in clear weather.

If the temptation to punch out through a thin cloud layer without official sanction is too powerful for some pilots to resist, descending through a “hole” in an overcast — sometimes little more than a thin spot — runs a close second. Holes in the clouds, and the false hope they bring, might have played a part in a different accident. This one took place in mountain-free Nebraska on a winter Sunday in 2016. The 115-hour, non-instrument-rated pilot of a Cessna 172 needed to get from Columbia, Missouri, to Sioux City, Iowa, to be at work the next day. There were IFR conditions along the route with cloud tops at 4,500 feet, and he chose to fly above the overcast. Sioux City was IFR when he approached, and he decided to divert to Wayne, Nebraska, a little to the southwest, where the reported conditions were VFR with scattered clouds at 200 feet.

By now it was night, dark and moonless. The pilot began his descent. His exchanges with the controller sounded carefree and routine. But he never reached Wayne.

By now it was night, dark and moonless. The pilot began his descent. He was on flight following; his exchanges with the controller sounded carefree and routine. But he never reached Wayne. He flew, under control, into the ground, 8 miles from the airport.

A flight instructor who happened to be nearby at the time of the crash wrote to the NTSB investigator, “The weather was very strange at that time. I remember because in my 16 years of flying, I’ve never encountered weather like this: There were literally clouds on the ground. It was 15 degrees [Fahrenheit], and these clouds on the surface were puffy white cumulus-type clouds in my headlights. It wasn’t like walls of fog that you sometimes see. Visibility went from 6 sm to less than ¼ in seconds. Ceilings were also very low … and there was freezing fog as well.”

Neither the pilot nor the controller could anticipate that reported VFR weather would collapse into freakish IMC. But on the other hand, to descend in moonless darkness over unlighted terrain without having the destination in sight requires some daring and a firm faith in one’s own skills and good luck. With relatively little flying experience, the pilot possibly did not even realize the pitfalls — illusions, disorientation, vertigo — of night VFR flying over unpopulated terrain. Did he know how low he was? The descent was really an IFR operation, and neither training nor experience had prepared him for it.

A century ago, it was the rashness of flying that drew people to it. Passions have cooled since then, and for the most part airplanes have become time-saving conveniences or ostentatious accessories. The reliability of pilots, however, has not kept pace. Airplanes can still revive the old bravado in us, not always with happy effect.