Aftermath - Close to Home: A Deeper Look at One Cirrus SR22 Crash

The reasoning behind this private pilot's fatal decision isn't as clear-cut as it may seem on the surface.

Cirrus SR22 Crash

Cirrus SR22 Crash

The morning dawned misty and overcast; even low-lying areas to the east, which the marine stratus layer often did not reach, were reporting 100 feet and a quarter-mile. By noon, however, conditions at the airport had improved to 1,800 broken, 2,800 overcast and 10 miles visibility. A Cirrus SR22, whose destination lay to the east, took off just before noon and headed for the pass, intending to follow the highway to the desert before turning eastward. The elevation of the departure airport was 800 feet, so that the overcast layer was at 3,600. The Cirrus initially climbed to 3,300 feet and then immediately descended back to 2,200.

The front seat passenger snapped a picture through the windshield. Clouds obscured the mountaintops on both sides of the pass, but on the whole it didn’t look bad.

Passing through the first range of hills, the Cirrus, hidden now from radar, proceeded along the highway. The area was very familiar to the pilot; in fact, shortly after radar lost him he flew past his own home.

A few minutes later and a few miles farther along, a woman was riding her horse along a dirt road. It was misty, with low clouds. Hearing the loud sound of an approaching engine overhead, she looked up to see an airplane come out of the clouds upside down. Its windshield was visible as it passed over her. It crashed behind a barn; a plume of flames rose up.

Another witness said that she heard the airplane’s engine making “oscillating noises” for “two to three minutes” as if it were going back and forth in the clouds.

When it came out of the clouds, she said, it was angled downward.

Two roofers working about a quarter-mile south of the accident site saw the crash. The weather was cloudy, they said, with wind, fog and low clouds moving in from the west. To the north, the visibility was good under the clouds, but the ridges were hidden. They heard and saw the airplane north-northwest of them; it passed behind a hill, the engine grew louder, and it came into view again. It made a “hard, descending right-hand turn” and dove steeply into the ground “like a missile.”

The three occupants of the Cirrus — the pilot, his visiting 30-year-old daughter and a woman friend of hers who took the right front seat because she had never been in a private airplane before — died instantly in the crash. The intense fire that followed reduced the composite airframe to ashes; but the passenger’s digital camera, and its snapshot of the cloud-roofed pass ahead, somehow survived the inferno.

The pilot, 51 years old, a marketing manager for a local utility, had renewed his medical on the very morning of the accident. On his application he reported 285 hours total time. He had been a private pilot for six years and was now a partner in the Cirrus. He did not have an instrument rating. The instructor who originally taught him, and with whom he had done a biennial a few months before the accident, described him as smart and quick to understand things, but also unhurried and "not a pushy person." He knew the weather requirements for** VFR flight** well, knew how to get weather information and had "breezed through" the biennial oral. The instructor said that, out of all of his students, "this [accident] was a shocker."

It was the kind of day on which checking the weather does not get a pilot very far. The overcast condition was common in the area; local pilots were familiar with it; they knew that the exact degree and height of cloud coverage and the visibility between the hills was unpredictable. Pilots would routinely “sneak out through the pass” north of the departure airport; the clouds usually broke up as you neared the desert. On this day, the weather was following its usual pattern, with the ceiling rising gradually and the visibility improving; quite possibly the clouds may have vanished by later in the afternoon. But the only way to know whether the route out through the pass was passable was to go and have a look.

That is what a police helicopter did that had tried the same route twice that morning. He went out twice, and twice returned. The second time, he progressed almost exactly as far as the Cirrus would, and later pronounced the conditions there “basically zero-zero” and impossible for a VFR “scud run.” The Cirrus arrived an hour later, but if the roofers’ description of clouds and mist moving in from the west was accurate, it may be that the situation had not changed much during that hour.

We can’t know exactly what happened. The report of one witness that the airplane went back and forth “in the clouds” for two to three minutes is not supported by the others, who generally describe it emerging unexpectedly from the clouds at low altitude, apparently out of control.

It’s significant, however, that the crash did not occur near the highway, which runs up the lowest and flattest portion of the wide valley. The accident site was, in fact, 2½ miles north of the highway, where the terrain is irregular and several hundred feet higher. It was also less than a mile and a half west of an airport that was certainly well known to the pilot, since he lived only a few miles from it.

A pilot flying up a valley below an overcast layer might instinctively try to remain where the distance between clouds and ground is greatest. That can be a trap; if you fly up the middle of a narrow valley and have to turn around, you may not have room; it’s better to hug one side, if possible the downwind side because a turn is tighter when made into the wind. But in this case the valley was wide and there would have been ample room to turn back. The highway, furthermore, should have been an excellent navigational aid. Yet the pilot did not follow it.

Accidents of this type, a noninstrument pilot finding himself in instrument weather, occur frequently — perhaps more frequently than any other kind. They get a generic probable cause from the NTSB: “The noninstrument-rated pilot’s improper decision to continue the flight into instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in spatial disorientation and loss of control.” Sometimes the cause is sheer pilot pigheadedness, but not always. In this case, the pilot may have been trying to do the wise and cautious thing.

To judge from the location of the crash site, it’s possible that the pilot found he could not continue, decided to land at the nearby airport and wait out the weather — if worse came to worst, his wife could drive a few miles and pick them up — but then turned away from the highway and toward the airport too early. Perhaps he counted on his GPS getting him there but failed to consider that it might lead him into worse weather. Terrain looks different when you’re low, and a GPS doesn’t know which hills are obscured by clouds or how to plan an escape route. Once the pilot saw what was happening, it may have been too late, or there may have been no room to turn around. Even right decisions sometimes produce wrong results.

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.