Aftermath: An Accident Waiting to Happen

A pilot with a shocking disregard for personal safety comes to his inevitable demise.

Piper PA-32 Turbo Saratoga
Piper PA-32 Turbo SaratogaCourtesy Piper

The Piper Turbo Saratoga departed Dallas Addison Airport (ADS) a few minutes after noon on an unseasonably warm December day. The pilot did not file a flight plan, and his destination is unknown. At 1327, the pilot radioed Kansas City Center for flight following, reporting his altitude as 11,500 feet. At 1400, the pilot reported that he was descending to 3,500 feet.

The controller asked the pilot whether he was above an overcast and needed a clearance to descend through it. The pilot replied, “No, we’re on top of the overcast. I think we can get down through it, get on down where we need to be.”

The pilot’s “we” was the Lindberghian one; he was alone in the airplane.

At 1405, the controller, who must have sensed from the pilot’s somewhat non-standard phrasing that he might not be instrument-rated, said, “If you’re on top of an overcast and there aren’t any big holes in it and we haven’t had anything reported broken for the last four to five hours, [you] can’t go through the clouds, so let me know what you want to do.”

The pilot fessed up. “Well, I was looking for some broken ... looks like I’m going to stop off here at probably 5,500 the way it looks right now. You know I may, I’m not IFR-certified, so you advise.”

You advise.

The controller read off the weather in the pilot’s area; all IFR. “Maintain VFR,” he told the pilot, evidently sensing what might come next. “There’s other traffic out there ... have you had experience flying IFR? I mean recent training or anything?”

“I have not. I’ve got about 1,500 hours of regular VFR flight. I have gone down through clouds doing surveillance and everything else. We’ve never had a problem with it.”

Surveillance and everything else.

“Well, you’re illegal to enter the clouds, that’s the problem,” the controller said.

Shortly, the pilot said, “We’ve got a broken spot right here. We can dip down through.”

There were no further communications with the pilot. Radar showed the Saratoga at 6,200 feet, making a 90-degree left turn and beginning to descend. Eighty-seven seconds later it was at 3,800 feet. It continued to descend to 2,400 feet, then made another 90-degree turn and climbed rapidly. The last radar return had the airplane at 4,400 feet.

Two witnesses on the ground heard the sound of the Saratoga’s engine rising and falling “like a crop-duster.” There was a “ka-wump” sound a short time later, then silence.

As they drove toward where they thought the sound had come from, ice was forming on their windshield and the clouds were at treetop level.

When accident investigators arrived, they found a wreckage path that stretched nearly a third of a mile. The stabilator, vertical stabilizer and parts of the left wing had separated from the aircraft; the fuselage and right wing reached the ground 1,500 feet farther along. Fire consumed the cockpit and cowling, but they were able to establish flight and engine-control continuity. Bending and scratching of the propeller blades, one of which had separated from the hub, confirmed the ear-witnesses’ reports that the engine had been developing power at impact.

Each accident is one-of-a-kind for friends and family, but the circumstances of this one were commonplace enough. Pilots with little or no instrument training or experience regularly take off in bad weather, or fly into it — sometimes on dark nights to boot — and they regularly crash. Keeping an airplane level by reference to an attitude indicator seems like a simple enough video game, but it proves surprisingly difficult in real life.

Although the pilot’s destination was not in the National Transportation Safety Board’s report of the accident, he was headed northward and crashed a little south of Kansas City. He could easily have known that the weather was going to change drastically somewhere en route; the high that day in Dallas was 74 and more than 2 inches of rain fell; in Kansas City, 500 miles to the north, the high was 28.

It might have seemed to investigators that there was nothing out of the ordinary to see here, until the toxicology report came back. It held some interesting discoveries.

Read More: Aftermath

The pilot’s blood and liver fluids contained acetaldehyde, a toxic breakdown product of alcohol associated with hangovers, and both cocaine and benzoylecgonine, the latter a byproduct of cocaine metabolism. The detection of unmetabolized cocaine might suggest at least some of it had been ingested fairly recently; but only a trace amount of the drug was present.

The pilot’s history revealed more surprises. When he applied for insurance for his airplane, which he’d bought six months before the accident, he had listed his total time as 679 hours and claimed to hold a commercial certificate and a second-class medical. In fact, he had been issued a student certificate 18 months before the accident. His logbook recorded 119.4 hours, of which 2.1 were endorsed as dual-flight instruction. There were no other endorsements.

An instructor who had flown with the pilot said he “only wanted to fly,” and had stopped coming to the flight school after a few hours of instruction. He had, the instructor added, “a very cavalier attitude toward flying safety and regulations.”

The pilot had kept his student certificate for only five months. It was then revoked by the FAA after he flew low over Independence, Kansas, and toilet-papered the downtown area. After landing, he was arrested for flying under the influence of alcohol and littering. The FAA noted as well that he did not have an endorsement for solo flight.

A devil-may-care approach to flying does not always end in disaster, but it’s often headed that way. I’ve known pilots who would fly for hours above a solid overcast, always confident that they would be able to descend through a hole, real or imagined, when they reached their destinations. Often they were. Others would scud-run until their luck ran out and then put down on a road, where they would represent to sympathetic reporters and local gendarmes that the weather had “closed in on them.”

Flying is a personality test. People who are by nature methodical and circumspect presumably make safe pilots, but there is no requirement to document one’s personality type when applying for a license. Cocaine adds a wild card to the hand. Cocaine is a stimulant that produces feelings of euphoria, empowerment and confidence. These are good qualities in a pilot — up to a point.

Confidence makes flying easier. Pilots who are free of anxiety, who trust their airplanes and engines to give all that is asked of them, will fly more loosely, naturally and instinctively than pilots who are unsure of their decisions and uneasy about their equipment. But beyond a certain point confidence becomes overconfidence, and pathological. A pilot who flies for a couple of hours over a solid overcast and then asks a controller to advise him about what to do is a pilot who has thrown not just healthy caution, but common sense, to the winds.

The NTSB included a number of elements in its finding of probable cause. It chose to place “the pilot’s impairment of judgment and performance” because of cocaine first. Last, it cited “overconfidence in his personal ability.” Looking at the pilot’s history, however, you might conclude that overconfidence and poor judgment were hallmarks of his flying career from the start, when he decided he didn’t need no stinkin’ lessons or licenses. Maybe his overconfidence should have been listed first — even before the cocaine.