When you think about it, the rules applying to non-commercial, Part 91 flying are very lenient. We can take off when we want, go pretty much where we want, and don’t need to talk to anyone unless the weather or the location demands it. Still, that’s not enough for some pilots, who perhaps think their skill, experience or immediate needs outweigh the need to comply with even minimal requirements.
Rules regarding instrument flight, airspace and preflight preparation exist because hard-won experience has shown they make sense, even if they require only minimal actions to ensure safety. Ignoring some of these basic rules isn’t a wise choice if we want a long and uneventful career in the air. And every now and then, an accident record comes along to remind us of what can happen when do.
On December 3, 2011, at about 1335 Mountain time, a Socata TB21 collided with terrain near Silverton, Colo. The non-instrument-rated private pilot and three passengers were fatally injured. Instrument conditions prevailed; a flight plan had not been filed for the flight, which departed Durango, Colo., at 1319 with Aspen, Colo. (ASE), as its destination.
The pilot contacted ATC while en route at FL200 and 12 miles southeast of Telluride, Colo., requesting VFR flight following to ASE. Subsequently, he reported he could not descend below his altitude and maintain VFR. Moments later, the airplane disappeared from radar and contact was lost. There were no reported distress calls from the pilot.
Numerous people in and near Silverton reported hearing the airplane. There were no reports of anyone seeing it before impact. Witnesses described the weather as snowing with poor visibility. A cross-country skier very clearly heard the airplane directly above him. The witness said it sounded like the airplane was doing aerobatics or tricks, and the pilot was having a hard time figuring out where he was going. An NTSB investigator asked another witness if she had ever heard an airplane performing aerobatics before. She responded, “Yes, on TV, and that is what it sounded like.”
The pilot had been in radio contact with the Denver ARTCC to request flight following. The controller confirmed with the pilot that he was flying VFR at “20,000 [feet],” then reminded the pilot he needed to be below 18,000 feet. The pilot reported he could not maintain VFR at a lower altitude and would descend below the flight levels as soon as he could. Shortly after the pilot told Denver Center he was not qualified to control the airplane on instruments, radio communications were lost.
The airplane came to rest in snow-covered mountainous terrain ranging from 10,400 to 9750 feet msl. Wreckage distribution and tree damage was consistent with an in-flight breakup. No pre-impact anomalies with the engine or flight control system precluding normal operation were found.
Examination and reconstruction revealed the right wing had been displaced upward more than 80 degrees from its normal position. The left wing was bent upwards from the wing root to near 1/3 span before bending downward; 45-degree creasing was noted near the left wing’s root. The airplane’s aft fuselage displayed creasing, and its skin and pop rivets displayed signatures of tearing and buckling in the downward direction.
The turn indicator depicted an inverted airplane.
The pilot, age 59, had accrued 593.5 hours total time, with 217.4 hours in the accident airplane. Of that experience, he had logged 4.4 total hours of simulated instrument time, the last of which was recorded on August 21, 2001.
Weather near the accident site included a surface trough and low pressure system, which would produce clouds and precipitation. Converging surface winds in the area also produced a lifting mechanism for the existing clouds. In addition, a mid-level trough moved east through the airplane’s flight path, producing clouds and precipitation in the mountainous terrain.
Cloud tops increased from 13,000 feet msl at 1200 Mountain time to between 19,000 and 22,000 feet a few minutes after the crash. Radar recorded light precipitation echoes near the accident site. An Airmet issued prior to the airplane’s departure called for moderate turbulence, moderate icing, instrument conditions with precipitation and mist, and mountain obscuration due to clouds, precipitation and mist along the route of flight.
Witnesses who heard the airplane reported low clouds with light snow. At 1335, an automated weather observation station about 13 miles northwest of the accident site reported wind from 230 degrees at four knots, visibility 10 sm, scattered clouds at 1900 feet, a broken layer at 3700 feet and an overcast at 6000 feet, temperature 27 F, dew point 21 F, and barometric pressure of 29.82 in. Hg.
The NTSB determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The non-instrument-rated pilot’s decision to embark on a flight through forecasted instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), and his subsequent flight into IMC, which resulted in the pilot’s spatial disorientation and subsequent maneuvering of the airplane in a manner that exceeded the airplane’s structural limits.”
A 600-hour pilot flying a non-de-iced turbocharged single decides to take three friends to Aspen, in winter. Since the NTSB doesn’t mention any contact with Flight Service or an online briefing, it’s likely he didn’t bother to check weather. Instead, he launched into some truly scuzzy weather, which likely included moderate turbulence and moderate icing. To maintain VFR, he climbs into controlled airspace but doesn’t bother requesting a clearance. His most recent instrument time is at least 10 years earlier.
We don’t know much about this pilot’s history, but we do know he did almost everything wrong on this flight: Since we’re going anyway, who needs a weather briefing? And if we want to fly at 20,000 feet, we’ll do it and beg forgiveness later. The NTSB report doesn’t discuss the weather at ASE, but it likely was just as scuzzy as what he encountered en route. What was the pilot’s plan for getting down and into ASE in IMC? Did he even have one?
We also don’t know what kind of pressures resulted in this pilot’s decision to attempt the flight. Maybe he was showing off; maybe he was trying to win a bet. Whatever—he decided the normal rules do not apply, and took three innocent passengers with him.