NTSB Points to Pilot’s Medical Condition in Bellanca Accident

Autopsy revealed drugs in pilot’s system.

bellanca viking
A Bellanca Viking similar to the accident airplane.Craig Kinzer/Wikimedia Commons

An experienced, commercially-rated pilot made what could certainly be considered a rookie mistake during his approach to runway 18 at the Jesse Viertel Memorial airport in Booneville, Missouri. The pilot, flying a Bellanca Viking in April 2017, flew the final approach at an extremely low altitude, much lower than normal, on a day without a cloud in the sky. So low was the aircraft, that it snagged power lines half a mile north of the airport. The aircraft quickly impacted the ground and caught fire, killing both people aboard. The NTSB later remarked that the pilot was familiar enough with the airport that he should have known the power lines were in the way.

One item that popped up during the investigation was the pilot’s lack of a current FAA medical certificate. An autopsy of the pilot also revealed both coronary artery disease and significant brain pathology. While the Board didn’t believe the heart condition affected the pilot’s behavior that day, they did find scarring on his brain from a previous injury, as well as severe damage to his left optic nerve. So severe was the eye damage, the Board believed the pilot was completely blind in his left eye, a problem that would have affected the pilot’s depth perception.

Additionally the investigation discovered the pilot had ingested an astonishing number of psychoactive drugs, any one of which should have disqualified him from flying, including cocaine, methamphetamine, clonazepam, and diphenhydramine. “In addition to their psychoactive effects, these drugs are potent vasoconstrictors and can cause small arteries to spasm, cutting off blood flow to portions of vital organs,” the Board said.

While the pilot's level of intoxication with methamphetamine or cocaine at the time of the accident is unknown, it is very likely that he was impaired by the combined effects of these drugs at the time of the accident. Although the neuropathologist who examined the pilot's brain believed the degree of cerebral damage would take several hours to develop, the pilot was deceased by the time first responders arrived some 10 minutes after the accident. Therefore, his brain damage had to have begun before the accident and was likely caused by the pilot's misuse of cocaine and methamphetamine. And of course, the pilot’s apparently cavalier attitude about his health caused the death of an innocent passenger.

Officially, the NTSB cited the probable cause(s) of this accident to be the pilot's impairment, due to his use of a combination of psychoactive drugs and a vision deficiency in his left eye, that resulted in a failure to maintain adequate altitude during final approach to landing and hence his collision with power lines. Drug and alcohol impairment remain items at the top items on the NTSB's Most Wanted List.