by Ken Ibold
Its easy to get fixated on whats possible, so much so that what seems impossible sneaks up on you. So it goes when pilots without instrument ratings plunge ahead into areas of low clouds – or worse.
While its easy to armchair-quarterback and grandly assure yourself that you would never be so dense, consider that pilots who run into this kind of trouble certainly dont set out on suicide missions or blindly accept obscene amounts of risk. In fact, the sirens song of destination have caused countless aviators to founder upon the rocks.
The pilot of a Beech K35 Bonanza was flying from his base in Merced, Calif., to Oshkosh to attend AirVenture with his wife. The pilot, who had owned the airplane for more than five years, was not wet behind the ears. He had accumulated about 3,300 hours total time and had gotten a multi-engine rating several years earlier.
The pilot reportedly flew the airplane 50 to 60 hours a year, which is slightly on the high side of individually owned aircraft. He had flown the airplane 12 hours in the previous two weeks alone.
The couple arrived at Cherokee, Iowa, on Friday and stopped for the night. Saturday morning, they were back at the airport. The pilot started this leg of the trip by adding 43 gallons of fuel and asking an employee at the FBO to post a For Sale notice for him. The 1959 Bonanza was going away, but the NTSB report did not indicate the reason for the sale.
The pilot checked the weather on the FBOs computer, but didnt like what he saw. He delayed takeoff until noon, then launched under gray skies. The area forecast was fairly optimistic, calling for scattered clouds at 3,000 feet agl, ceiling broken at 10,000 feet with tops to 25,000 feet, widely scattered thunderstorms and moderate rain.
Some of the weather stations along the route clearly showed the thunderstorm development, reporting ceilings of 200 feet, visibility of a quarter mile and lightning in all quadrants.
At 1:22 p.m., the airplane came to rest in a muddy soybean field. The pilot and his wife were killed in the crash.
A witness working in a shed about a mile from the accident site said a severe thunderstorm had moved through the area at the time of the crash. He said it rained about 1 inch in a 15-minute period, with high winds, pea-sized hail and lightning. A police officer in the area echoed this report, saying there were frequent lightning strikes and gusts he estimated at more than 50 miles per hour.
When the NTSB analyzed the pilots route of flight and the weather involved, investigators concluded the pilot flew through about 100 miles of light rain, then through a 20-mile break. At that point, the report says, there was an intense to extreme storm extending from five miles south of the accident site to 20 miles north.
Investigators could find no record that the pilot obtained updated weather information en route, but the fact that he was in the air for less than an hour and a half renders this point moot to some extent. The weather he encountered should not have been a surprise, especially given his caution at launching earlier in the day.
Its easy in retrospect to see where the pilots errors were. Its also easy to get inside his head to count the factors that pointed him down the wrong path.
After 3,300 hours of VFR flying, he had seen his share of storms and made his share of weather decisions. The area forecast called the storms widely scattered, which meant it was likely hed be able to circumnavigate the thunderstorms visually. He was on something of a pilgrimage, as many pilots who choose to attend the worlds largest airshow often consider it.
The fixation on what you know sometimes causes you to ignore the possibility that your facts are wrong. And that mistake can be your last.
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