Trouble Flying Low Upon the Suwanee River

When you fly low, things may reach up to get you.

[File Photo: Adobe Stock]

On a January afternoon in 2017, a sport pilot, 61, flew his amateur-built Buccaneer amphibian from the Orlando, Florida, area to Blue Springs State Park in Orange City to meet a friend and camp there beside the Suwanee River. The two-seat airplane, powered by a pylon-mounted 80 hp Rotax, had been built in 1992; the pilot had purchased it from the builder nine months prior.

The pilot, who had not visited the area before, flew up and down the river for some time looking for his friend. When he located him—just arriving—he landed northward on a straight segment of the 100-yard-wide river and tied up at a boat dock. Learning that his friend was about to go downstream on a paddleboard to hunt for a dog’s life jacket that had fallen into the water earlier in the day, the pilot said that he would help in the search after he had unloaded his gear from the airplane.

What Happened

A short time later, the Buccaneer took off northward, made a 180-degree left turn, and dropped down to treetop level to follow the river downstream. In the meantime, the paddler had retrieved the life jacket and was making his way back toward the campsite. His view was obscured by trees at a bend in the river, but he heard the airplane’s engine stop suddenly.

An 8-year-old boy saw the accident from upriver, nearly a mile away. He said that the airplane was flying below the tops of the trees lining the riverbanks when suddenly it flipped over backward and fell into the water.

“How could he forget the power lines that he had flown over half an hour earlier?”

It took the paddler and another would-be rescuer three or four minutes to reach the airplane. It lay inverted in shallow water. They tried to extricate the pilot, but he was already dead from impact injuries.

Directly above the wreckage, several power lines crossed the river. Their presence is indicated on the Jacksonville sectional chart by a tiny tower icon. There was nothing—no pennants, no red-and-white balls—to enhance the visibility of the wires themselves, but then there was little reason to expect a 40-foot-tall boat or a low-flying airplane to pass by here. However, a conspicuous 100-foot-wide clear-cut path marked the trail of the wires through the forest on both sides of the river. Because the pilot had flown over the power lines and touched down beyond them when he landed, it seemed unlikely that he had not been aware of them.

Telling Details

The National Transportation Safety Board confined its determination of the probable cause of the accident to “the pilot’s failure to see and avoid power lines while flying at low altitude.” That is exactly correct, but why did it happen?

The NTSB’s public docket on the accident supplies a few interesting details. The pilot and his friend were acquainted through the local hang-gliding community and Facebook. The friend described the pilot as “an icon in the community” and experienced, with 9,000 or 10,000 hours in light-sport aircraft.

Now, few people have that much time in light-sport aircraft because the category came into being only a few years ago. Of course, he could have just meant small, sporty aircraft. But while his logbook was not found, the pilot’s recent medical-certificate applications were. In 2014, he had reported 982 hours of flight experience. Two years later, he reported 8,000 hours. By the time the information reached his friend, his time had swelled even further.

Now, exaggerating one’s flight experience is a venial sin—just so much harmless bragging.

What strikes one as odd about the story of the airborne search for the life jacket, however, is the disproportion between the means and the end. To get on a paddleboard and go downriver looking for a life preserver makes sense; to use an airplane for such a search does not. The paddler can scan the banks at leisure for the brightly colored object. At 70 mph, or whatever the searching speed of the Buccaneer might be, its pilot could not take his eyes off the shores for an instant. Maybe it would make sense if there were miles of river to search, but the life jacket was not long gone, and the Suwanee is not white water.

Questions Abound

The grandiosity of the pilot’s action might be of a piece with his exaggeration of his flight experience. It might come from a desire to show off, to impress, to arrest the attention of onlookers. If so, he would not be the first pilot so inclined.

So to begin with, there is a question of the pilot’s good judgment in deciding to conduct a search for a small object while flying below the treetops along a sinuous river—a river with which he was unfamiliar, and whose twists and turns he could not anticipate.

And then there is the question of situational awareness, or at least of memory. How could he forget the power lines that he had flown over half an hour earlier? Perhaps it’s significant that when he landed over the power lines in the first place, he did not expect to encounter them again; there was a bend in the river to the south, so he would certainly take off northward. Unconsciously, perhaps, he edited the power lines out of his memory as something already over and done with, and then failed to retrieve the memory of them when, on an unexpected new mission, he turned back southward after taking off.

Why did he not see the wires as he approached them? According to witnesses, the sky was gray and overcast at the time, and they were hard to see. Near eye level, they may have blended into the background of foliage. Perhaps the anticipation of soaring triumphantly over his paddling friend’s head distracted the pilot. And he may have been looking sideways and down, not up or straight ahead.

Flying at low altitude is enjoyable, but it is also dangerous. Part of the danger is that you will fail to notice an obstruction; part is that you are turning over some of the control of your flight path to the whims of the terrain. But the most serious danger is that, if you make a mistake, you will have very little time or space in which to correct it.

No Room for Error

In a similar accident that occurred just nine months after this one, a Cessna 172 collided with power lines 40 feet above the Mississippi River near Ramsey, Minnesota. The 300-hour pilot, 47, most probably failed to see the power lines—although they were marked by red balls—because he was coming around a bend in the river and facing the evening sun.

The NTSB included the pilot’s “personality” among the causes of the accident. He was known to be a person who could not resist the impulse to do reckless things and brag about them later. His instructor urged him to cool it and, at one point, sardonically suggested that if he intended to die in an airplane crash, he should at least not take his wife and son with him.

He took only his wife.

Editor's Note: This article is based on the NTSB reports of these accidents and is intended to bring the issues raised to our readers' attention.

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of FLYING.

Peter Garrison taught himself to use a slide rule and tin snips, built an airplane in his backyard, and flew it to Japan. He began contributing to FLYING in 1968, and he continues to share his columns, "Technicalities" and "Aftermath," with FLYING readers.
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