Aftermath: The Only One to Fly

It was windy, but it was Sunday.

Aftermath Artwork

Aftermath Artwork

On a Thursday in March 2013, the 500-hour pilot of a Mooney M20E arrived at Angel Fire, a ski resort east of Taos in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. With him were his girlfriend, his sister and his sister's 13-year-old daughter. They came from San Antonio, stayed with a cousin of the pilot, and planned to return on Sunday.

At midday on Sunday they were at the airport. The wind was blowing — really blowing, 33 knots gusting to 47 — right across the runway. There were standing lenticulars on the mountaintops, and the forecast bristled with warnings of possible rotors. On the ski slopes even the lifts had shut down. The runway, in a bowl surrounded by mountain ridges, was known to be subject to unpredictable turbulence. Nobody was flying.

An employee of the FBO, an A&P mechanic with long experience in aviation, tried to suggest to the pilot that the conditions were not ideal. "You're really going to fly in this weather?" he asked, with, I suppose, barely disguised incredulity.

The pilot replied that he was, and it wasn't going to be a problem.

"My neighbor has a Mooney, and he waves off at 20 knots," the employee remarked, and went on to suggest that if the pilot cared to wait the wind might die down a bit toward sunset. The pilot, however, assured him that his "plane could handle it."

The employee's view of the subsequent takeoff roll was blocked by snowbanks, but he caught sight of the Mooney when it was airborne. It seemed barely under control. Crabbing strongly to the west, seemingly unable to gain altitude, the airplane was being tossed like a cork in white water. "The right wing rose rapidly," he said. "The aircraft rotated left and the nose rose rapidly, the aircraft continued to rotate to the left until the nose pointed straight down toward the ground, and then [it] flew vertically into the ground."

The reason for this accident was plain enough: "the pilot's loss of control while flying in a turbulent mountain-wave environment," the National Transportation Safety Board said. His overconfidence and inexperience were contributing factors.

This is an instance, it seems to me, in which it would have made sense for the NTSB to shift the "cause" of the accident backward a little in time, to the pilot's decision to take off in the first place. Assuming that he was not acting out of sheer bullheadedness, without reflection, we must suppose he weighed the pros and cons. What were they?

He had never before flown into or out of an airport as high as Angel Fire, but he had flown in the mountains in Colorado and Wyoming. If he had consulted his POH, he would have found that even at the current density altitude of 9,550 feet the M20E ought to get off the ground in less than a quarter of the 8,900-foot runway and climb at 700 or 800 feet a minute.

The airport manager took a less sanguine view of the Mooney's likely performance. He was present on Thursday when the airplane arrived, and he noticed the "size" of the occupants and the quantity of luggage, which consisted of six "medium-sized" bags. He suggested to the pilot that he not buy fuel there unless he really needed to, but instead stop to refuel en route. The pilot agreed at the time, but in fact put six gallons of fuel into one tank before departing, bringing the fuel aboard to 28 gallons.

Although one member of the party was quite portly, the combined weight of all four was less than the 4 x 170 for which the plane was designed. When they boarded for the fatal flight, however, the pilot seems not to have concerned himself about the CG location. The largest passenger was in the back seat and the smallest in the right front. The NTSB, doing a retrospective weight and balance, assigned an implausible weight of only 10 pounds to each of the six bags, but still found the CG to be slightly behind the aft limit. If, as seems likely, the bags were heavier than that, the airplane might have remained below its gross weight of 2,575 pounds but would have been still further out of CG limits and consequently less stable and harder to handle — not that, given the magnitude of the turbulence, additional longitudinal stability would have been of much use.

Viewed solely in terms of weight and takeoff performance, however, the decision to fly was defensible. Besides, from a certain point of view the terrain was favorable. They had only to follow the high tension lines to the southeast; the elevation in that direction barely exceeded 10,000 feet before falling rapidly toward the high plains. The Mooney should have no trouble gaining that much altitude, and the west wind would even help carry it upslope. Furthermore, it was Sunday, and all four of the people in the plane probably had places they needed to be on Monday morning. Apart from the wind the weather was good, and they would enjoy a phenomenal tailwind on the way back to San Antonio.

The pilot and his sister talked to their father on the morning of the flight and told him that "it appeared to be a good day to fly." Whether this was a sincere judgment, an attempt to reassure the other passengers who might have been within earshot, or sheer whistling in the dark, we cannot know. The cousin with whom they were staying did not share the opinion and tried in vain to dissuade them from going. The 13-year-old expressed misgivings; none of the others did.

It's pretty certain that the pilot had never before taken off in a direct crosswind of 33 knots gusting to 47. Few pilots have. The M20 POH gives a maximum demonstrated crosswind velocity of 11 knots, so he was deep in terra incognita.

Even assuming that he knew to lean the mixture for maximum power before starting the takeoff roll, the airplane, with less than 150 horsepower available, would have accelerated slowly and would likely have begun to slide sideways before it was ready to fly. To avoid hitting the edge lights, he would probably have lifted it into the air sooner than he would have liked.

Now he would have confronted the siege of troubles that, being inexperienced in mountain flying, he could not have anticipated. Normally, you would accelerate to a higher-than-normal liftoff speed to provide a margin for gusts. But in an extremely strong direct crosswind it's very difficult, if not impossible, to keep the airplane tracking the centerline, and the only option, apart from aborting the takeoff, is to get airborne.

Off the ground at a low speed, the airplane would barely accelerate. At the same time, it was being tossed about by the wind. An 800 fpm rate of climb is not of much use in 1,000 fpm updrafts and downdrafts. Although he was in the air for more than a mile before crashing beyond the end of the runway, he never retracted the landing gear. It was probably all he could do to maintain even temporary and incomplete control.

The day after the accident, a reporter interviewed the airport manager, who had not been present at the airport when the crash occurred. "We sit in a bowl," he told her. "When the wind comes over the west ridge, it accelerates and tumbles and is hard for even experienced pilots to navigate." Asked why the airport had been open in spite of the wind, he explained that he closed it only for removing snow. "We assume that these pilots are smart enough to realize that they're not God. They can't do everything; the plane's only designed to do so much."

"You couldn't have paid me enough money to get in a plane yesterday," he said.

_This article is based on the NTSB's report of the accident and is intended to bring the issues raised to our readers' attention. It is not intended to judge or to reach any definitive conclusions about the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any aircraft or accessory. _

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