First Time Out

Installing a bunch of new toys in the panel doesnt make you a safer pilot.


We like our airplanes panel. Sure-theres a lot of stuff on the market today that simply wasnt available the last time we spent any real money at an avionics shop. But the existing equipment gets us where we want to go with very little drama. En route, George does most of the flying, while we follow along on the big-screen color moving map, then hand-fly whatever approach is appropriate, whether a visual, an ILS or something in between.

We have stereo music supplied by an iPod or other device, headsets to match and a portable Garmin GPS navigator with Nexrad weather capability. We also carry a poor mans electronic flight bag-a Windows-based tablet computer-with approach procedures and other materials for pre-flight planning or airborne use. Itd be tough to get lost.

It wasnt always that way: When we first bought the airplane, color moving maps were rare and one hadnt been installed in it yet, even though we had a second-generation GPS navigator, and there was no backup artificial horizon, like now. The flip-flop radios are new, also, as is the dual ILS capability.

A couple of years after all that stuff was installed, a close friend asked, “How long did it take you to learn using this equipment?” That question took us back to the first flight with the moving map, which mostly included a series of jerky turns in various directions as we told the system different and competing combinations of things we wanted it to do while the autopilot tried to follow along. It was a “heads-down” flight: We paid much more attention to the toys than to the airplane and who/what was nearby. “Were still learning,” was the reply.

Later, we would engage a VFR-only acquaintance flying a similar airplane in a months-long argument in which we tried to convince him the expensive panel he was flying did not make him safer, nor magically confer on him an instrument rating. Our “conversation” ended when we realized there was no way to penetrate with any “facts” his well-constructed faade of proficiency and safety.

The acquaintance always countered the question, “How will you know youre over your head?” by responding hed know and would turn around and land to wait out better weather. In response, we tried to make it clear he wouldnt always have that option. While we lost track of that pilot, we wish we had known at the time the facts of what happened to a Beech A36TC Bonanza on the afternoon of June 22, 2007.


At 1417 Central time that day, the Bonanza was destroyed when it departed from cruise flight and impacted terrain about 10 miles south of Cannon Falls, Minn. The flight departed DuPage Airport (DPA), West Chicago, Ill., about 1230 and was en route to Air Lake Airport (LVN), Lakeville, Minn. The solo pilot was fatally injured. Marginal visual conditions prevailed.

The non-instrument-rated private pilot was receiving ATC flight-following services at 2500 feet MSL. At 1413:08, the pilot said he was experiencing “poor visibility” and asked about area weather conditions. At 1414:53, the pilot reported being “in the soup,” and 30 or so seconds later mentioned his onboard systems presented a better weather picture than what he was seeing.

At 1416:02, the pilot told ATC he would divert to an airport south of his position. After the last radio transmission, three radar returns indicated the airplane descended from 2500 feet to 2300 feet MSL before it was lost from radar contact.


A witness saw the airplane descend through a cloud layer with its base at about 400-500 feet AGL. He reported the airplane was in about a 50-degree nose-down attitude, flying at high speed, and heard it impact terrain.

An automated weather observation at LVN, approximately 20 miles northwest of the accident site and at an elevation of 960 feet MSL, included visibility of 10 miles in light rain, an overcast ceiling at 1400 feet and lightning to the north.

The airplane came to rest in a cornfield, aligned on a 340-degree magnetic heading. The airplane hit terrain with force sufficient to bury its engine, which remained attached to the fuselage, about 4-5 feet in the ground. All major components were located at the crash site. Control continuity was established; the flaps and landing gear were retracted and the engine was producing power at impact.

The pilot purchased the airplane on January 3, 2007, and delivered it to an avionics shop at DPA for an upgrade on May 10, 2007. Among other things, the new avionics included a Garmin GNS-430W GPS, a multi-function display and a data-link receiver.

The day of the crash was the same day the airplane came out of the avionics shop. For about an hour, an avionics shop representative reviewed with the pilot how to use the new equipment, later reporting he was good enough for a “basic VFR flight plan.” The pilot then departed on the accident flight.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident to include: “The pilots continued flight into instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in spatial disorientation and loss of control.” And thats apparently what happened. What began as a simple, day VFR hop with new avionics turned into a classic VFR-into-IMC spatial disorientation accident. But thats not all.

Its pretty clear the pilot expected his multi-thousand-dollar panel to keep him out of trouble, and its safe to presume the airplane had and he used an autopilot, although the NTSB doesnt mention it. Something else we dont know: What avionics were removed during the installation and did the accident pilot fly into marginal condition with them previously?

A turbocharged Bonanza is an excellent traveling machine, one very much at home in the teens. While theres no evidence the pilot flew IFR without the rating, we wouldnt be the least bit shocked to learn this wasnt the first time he depended on his equipment-in place of training, experience and skill-to get him in and out of poor weather.

This also isnt the first time a pilot got in over his head by thinking new equipment would save him, but its one of the few times a pilot killed himself on the first flight after it all was installed.

Ultimately, though, a non-instrument-rated pilot flew a perfectly good airplane into the ground in poor weather. All the brand-new avionics in the world wont prevent accidents like this when we insist on flying in weather for which were not prepared.


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