When a Pilot’s Decision to Fly at Low Altitude Proved Fatal

Analyzing the aftermath of a 2017 Cessna 172 accident.

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This pilot took particular pleasure in low-altitude flying.Pexels

In the late afternoon of October 13, 2017, a 300-hour pilot, 47, with his wife in the seat beside him, was flying westward, below treetop level, over the Mississippi River alongside the town of Ramsey, Minnesota. He banked gently left to follow a bend in the river. Perhaps he was blinded by the low sun; perhaps there was no time to react. His Cessna 172, modified with a 180 hp engine and tailwheel gear, struck power lines 40 feet above the surface and plunged into the water.

The pilot took particular pleasure in low-altitude flying. Even as a student pilot he had triggered calls to the police for buzzing his house. He liked to phone his instructor, who was a personal friend, to report his latest reckless stunts. The instructor tried to persuade him to be more careful, but the pilot shrugged him off, saying, “You realize I am going to die in an aircraft one day.” Well, the instructor suggested, at least he should not take his wife or son with him.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the accident, which killed both the pilot and his wife, on “the pilot’s decision to fly along the river at low altitude contrary to applicable regulations and safety of flight considerations.” One of the applicable regulations, the one that only a bureaucrat would dream of mentioning in connection with the accident, was the biennial transponder check requirement for aircraft operated within the 30 nm veil of a Class B airport. The accident site was within 30 nm of Minneapolis-St. Paul International, and the pilot-owner had not obtained the required certification.

The other, which was at least germane, was FAR 91.119, which in effect says that over “sparsely populated areas” or “open water,” you may fly as low as you like provided that you remain 500 feet from “any person, vessel, vehicle or structure.”

The river is about 570 feet wide at the site of the accident, and there are structures, including many houses, along and near its banks, so the flight was, on the face of it, illegal. But the NTSB noted the fact that this style of flying was habitual with the pilot, and that he remained obdurate despite pressure from his instructor. One of the “personnel issues” enumerated among its findings was “personality.” It does seem that this pilot was one of those who thrive on risky behavior and for whom compliance with rules is optional — not that many of us do not share a few of those traits. But in extreme cases, long-term survival becomes a matter of luck.

That pilot’s addiction to low flights over water was similar to that of an almost 17,000-hour ATP, 73, who was in the habit of making low passes over a friend’s house on Lake D’Arbonne in Louisiana. On the day that his fate finally caught up with him, he was alone in his Cessna 150 and, according to a witness, had been flying low over the lake for about an hour.

He crossed over a western arm of the lake, flying south to north at a height of 5 to 10 feet. Several witnesses gave slightly conflicting accounts of what happened next. One thought the engine stumbled slightly; two did not recall any unusual sound. The 150 wobbled or pitched up and then down. Either the nosewheel or the left main touched the water, followed by the left wingtip. The plane cartwheeled, then sank in shallow water a few hundred feet offshore. The pilot’s friends rushed out in a boat to help, but were unable to reach him.

Investigators remained in doubt about what happened. Conditions were potentially conducive to carburetor icing, but the bending of the propeller blades suggested that the engine had been developing a good deal of power at impact. In any case, the contact with the lake surface was probably inadvertent. The NTSB attributed the accident, somewhat tautologically, to “the pilot’s failure to maintain clearance from the lake during a low-level maneuver.”

The pilot took particular pleasure in low-altitude flying. Even as a student pilot he had triggered calls to the police for buzzing his house.

A couple of weeks earlier, off the coast of Southern California, three Experimental light-sport Quicksilvers had taken off from Camarillo Airport and flown south to the shoreline, which they followed southward at a height of about 300 feet.

There were two pilots in one of the airplanes. Noticing the engine beginning to “skip,” they decided to climb to a safer altitude, but found that they could not get full power out of the Rotax two-stroke. The Quicksilver was losing height. Resigned now to a forced landing, they decided that the busy Pacific Coast Highway and the crowded scallops of beach between it and the water were equally unpromising, and that they would have to ditch. They did so, successfully; the airplane remained upright, and the pilots swam up from under the wing and clung to it.

They were a few hundred feet out. First, they thought they would hold on to the airplane, but it began to sink, and so they struck out for shore. One fell behind but repeatedly assured his friend that he was OK. Another pilot, observing the scene from the air, thought that the second swimmer at first seemed disoriented, but then swam with renewed coordination and purpose. People on the beach went out to assist him, but by the time they got him to the beach, he had drowned.

The NTSB retrieved the surf-mangled wreckage of the Quicksilver and gave its engine a thorough going-over. There was no obvious reason for the loss of power. Investigators found a number of discrepancies in the assembly of the fuel system, but none of them suggested a more persuasive connection to the power loss than did the simple possibility of carburetor icing.

The probable cause pointed to the loss of engine power and to the “low cruise altitude” — although 300 feet is not so low as many pilots fly along the coast — combined with the Quicksilver’s 5-to-1 glide ratio, which limited its options in case of an engine failure.

“The lack of personal flotation devices,” the NTSB continued, “likely contributed to the drowning of one of the pilots.”

Low flying leads to a certain number of accidents, but pilots are not going to stop flying low, because it’s fun. What can we learn from these accidents that might at least reduce the risks?

First, if you’re going to fly low over a lake or river, check it out from altitude first. The power lines across the Mississippi that the Cessna hit were marked, and would have been visible from above. There is always a risk of encountering obstacles when flying very close to the surface; don’t go around a blind curve with no idea of what lies on the other side.

Second, flying just a few feet above water exposes you to the risk that a moment’s inattention will bring the airplane, especially if it has fixed gear, into contact. It doesn’t take much to slow an airplane down or nose it over.

Third, if you’re flying over water, have flotation devices available. Everyone imagines he can swim a few hundred feet, or in the worst case do the “dead man’s float” until help comes along, but swimming in clothing, and even treading water, is exhausting, and exhaustion brings on panic. It’s entirely likely that the Quicksilver pilot who lost his life would be around today if he’d only had along some sort of flotation device, were it nothing more than a two-gallon freezer bag full of air.