Losing The Flick

The pilots correctly determined they needed more fuel to reach their destination, but forgot about terrain clearance.


The Flick,” the big picture, is how situational awareness often is described. As short descriptions go, it’s a good one. The big picture can mean different things to different people, of course, but it generally breaks down into knowing where you are, where you’re going, what it’s going to take to get there and whether the resources to complete the flight are available.

The resources can be any number of things. In particular, they usually boil down to keeping tabs on fuel, weather and terrain. Lose the flick on either one of these three, and you could find yourself in these pages.

Meanwhile, it’s important to remember that we’re taking on a big responsibility as pilot in command. While flying a personal airplane from point A to point B usually is enjoyable, we can’t over look the fact we’re the ones responsible for ensuring we actually get to point B. That realization can take all the fun out of crossing half the continent or more in a single bound, watching the world go by.

On July 29, 2011, at about 2100 Mountain time, a Cirrus SR20 was substantially damaged after impacting terrain while maneuvering about 30 nm southwest of Fredonia, Ariz. Both the private pilot and registered owner of the airplane, and the commercial pilot/passenger, sustained fatal injuries. Visual conditions for the personal cross-country flight prevailed at the time of the accident. The flight departed from Rock Hill, S.C., about 0800 Eastern time the same day. Henderson, Nev., was the planned ultimate destination.

Family members of the occupants subsequently reported maintaining contact with the flight during the day. The airplane stopped in Arkansas and Oklahoma for fuel, and planned to stop again in Arizona before reaching Nevada. When the flight did not arrive, a search was initiated. The wreckage was located the following morning.

Radar data revealed the last 26 minutes of the accident flight covered a distance of 58 nm. The airplane was transmitting a 1200 transponder code, but its altitude. From 20:28:55 to 20:54:10 (25 minutes, 15 seconds), radar data indicated the airplane was flying a magnetic heading of 244 degrees with an average groundspeed of 132 knots. At 20:54:10, radar data indicated the airplane turned right approximately 16 degrees, followed by an approximately 50-degree turn to the left 36 seconds later.

From 20:54:47 to 20:55:24 (37 seconds), the airplane’s magnetic heading was 210 degrees with an average groundspeed of 116 knots. This heading was determined to be in line with the Kingman (Ariz.) Airport (IGN), about 115 nm from the airplane’s position at the time.

From 20:55:24 until the last radar return at 20:55:36 (12 seconds), the airplane turned right about 90 degrees to a northwest heading. This heading was in line with the Kanab (Utah) Airport, 34 nm northwest of the last radar return.

The accident site was located about 0.1 miles north of the last radar return. The airplane had impacted high-standing trees at an elevation of about 8900 feet msl, on a measured magnetic heading of 355 degrees. The energy path extended for about 385 feet. All components necessary for flight were accounted for at the accident site. No pre-impact anomalies existed with the airframe that would have precluded normal operation of the airplane. The cockpit and cabin areas were consumed by fire and destroyed.

At 2054, weather observed about 34 nm south of the accident site include wind from 210 degrees at six knots, visibility 10 miles, scattered clouds at 11,000 feet, temperature 22 deg. C, dew point 11 deg. C, and an altimeter setting of 30.28 inches Hg. According to the U.S. Naval Observatory, the moon set at 1851, two hours before the accident. A review of air traffic facilities revealed that there were no communications between the pilots and ATC on the day of the accident.

The extent of wing and fuselage damage precluded verifying control cable continuity to the ailerons or if the flaps had been extended. The rudder, elevators and both horizontal stabilizers remained attached at various points. Elevator and rudder control cable continuity was confirmed.

Extensive damage to the engine was noted but there were no abnormalities that would have prevented normal operation and production of rated horsepower. Both magnetos had separated form the engine. One magneto could not be tested; the other produced spark when rotated. The electric vacuum pump had impact damage and was found partially opened. Small sections of the rotor were found in the cavity. The cavity was free of damage and chatter marks. The engine-driven vacuum pump also separated from the engine and had impact damage to its mount. Its cavity was free of damage and chatter marks.

Calculations determined the distance from the fuel stop in Oklahoma to Henderson, Nev., is 659.8 nm. Including the required 45-minute reserve fuel, the estimated range of the airplane would have been 658 nm. The NTSB noted three airports within 40 nm of the accident site, each with lighted runways at least 5950 feet in length:

Probable Cause
The NTSB determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The non-instrument-rated pilots’ loss of situational awareness during a dark night flight over a remote area, which resulted in their failure to maintain an altitude sufficient to ensure adequate terrain clearance. Contributing to the accident was the pilots’ fatigue due to their long duty day.”

This wasn’t the first time someone tried to stretch their fuel. At night. Over dark, rugged terrain. It won’t be the last. It also wasn’t the first time a pilot became distracted due to fatigue, or by the challenge of using a personal airplane to reach a distant destination in one day. It also won’t be the last.

From the NTSB report, it’s not clear how familiar the pilots were with the terrain over which they were flying. But it is clear they determined they’d come up short of fuel before reaching their destination and diverted to a nearby airport. They didn’t check their charts to ensure adequate altitude, and flew into terrain at night, a classic CFIT accident.

Situational awareness involves being familiar with all aspects of an airplane’s operation, including its fuel state, location, distance to the destination and altitude above terrain. With two pilots aboard, one of them should have been responsible for keeping the flick. In this accident, it’s clear no one did.




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