Short, but Sour

Hop turns deadly as pilot battles coastal fog, swirling winds and unforgiving terrain. Did he take the task too lightly?


by Ken Ibold

Pilots tend to measure the risk of flying as being directly proportional to the distance to be covered. To a large extent this is true. Long trips tend to throw changing weather, fatigue and fuel management into the mix.

But short trips can have those elements, too. Perhaps pilots get goaded into complacency because the distance is short. Perhaps they are more accepting of risks that may pile up because of some kind of perceived protection offered by the short time they plan to be in the air.

Whatever the reason, hops should include the same standard of preflight care as longer trips. That job may be easier given the fewer details youll have to track, but even a 20-mile flight can cause trouble if youre flippant about planning it – as the pilot of a Cherokee 140 found out one July afternoon last year.

The part-time charter pilot was flying from his base near Sacramento to Arcata, Calif., to pick up an airplane that would be used for a charter flight later that day. He was flying an airplane he had co-owned with his son for more than 12 years.

As the pilot neared Arcata, he was blocked by coastal fog and landed in Kneeland, an airport in the foothills about 18 miles from Arcata, at about 12:45. While there, he had lunch with a group of California Department of Forestry firefighters, who said it was relatively common for pilots to stop in Kneeland when the weather in Arcata was poor.

The pilot called a colleague in Arcata and asked for a weather report at about 1:30 p.m. The colleague reported the sky was overcast with the cloud bases at about 1,100 feet. Arcata is located on the Pacific Ocean at an elevation of 218 feet. Kneeland, on the other hand, has an elevation of 2,737 feet.

At about 2:15 p.m., the firefighters departed to respond to a fire, leaving the pilot at the airport. At that time, the weather in Arcata was described as patchy fog and breaking up. By all estimates, the pilot departed for Arcata about five minutes later.

For the next hour, Arcatas automated weather system reported slowly improving weather. At 2:53 it reported winds off the ocean at 5 knots, overcast ceiling at 1,300 feet and 10 miles visibility. At 3:18 the report was identical, except the ceiling was measured at 1,500 feet.

Those reports should not have come as a surprise to the pilot. The area forecast called for just such conditions: VFR throughout most of Northern California with areas of instrument conditions due to a marine layer along the coast and in coastal valleys.

At 2:30, the pilot contacted Seattle Center and said he was three miles southeast of the KNEES intersection – a position that roughly corresponds to Kneeland Airport. He said he was in VFR conditions at 5,500 feet and requested a clearance for an ILS approach into Arcata.

The controller gave him a transponder code, but the transponder appeared to be inoperative. The controller was able to track the pilot by its primary return, but no transponder signal was received for the duration of the flight.

The pilot was cleared for the approach about 15 minutes after initial contact, but he canceled the approach for an unknown reason two minutes later. He asked for a holding pattern to set up for another approach. He was cleared to hold at the KNEES intersection, which is the initial approach fix for the approach.

For sequencing purposes, the controller told the pilot at 2:45 that he could expect an eight-minute delay. The controller wanted to verify the pilot was flying the assigned hold, but in fact the pilot was making right-hand turns in the hold instead of left.

At 2:43, the pilot received clearance for another ILS Rwy 32 approach. When the controller issued the clearance, he told the pilot that the last airplane on the approach broke out at about 1,100 feet, which is about 700 feet above minimum descent altitude for the approach.

The pilot acknowledged the transmission. That was the last radio contact the pilot had.

The wreckage of the airplane was located at about 8:30 p.m. the next day. It was still 11 miles from the airport – about five miles inside the fix at which the pilot had been holding – at an elevation of about 1,850 feel msl. The pilot was killed in the crash.

The initial impact was near the top of 125-foot tall trees that were growing on sloped terrain. Two sections of the left wing remained in the trees. The rest of the wreckage was scattered for about 300 feet.

The 69-year-old pilot had held an ATP certificate for 14 years. He was a flight instructor for single-engine airplanes and instruments. He held ratings in military transports and had reported total time of 14,300 hours on his last medical application.

There was no indication of any pre-impact mechanical failure, although the fuselage was heavily fire-damaged. The co-owner said the airplane was properly equipped for instrument flight and that the accident pilot always carried a handheld GPS. However, the accident pilot had mentioned to the forestry workers that his airplane was not as well equipped as the airplanes he was used to flying.

A short hop into relatively benign instrument conditions, to be capped off with an ILS approach to well above minimums. It seems like a piece of cake.And maybe thats one reason why it wasnt.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Aircraft Profile: Piper PA-28-140.”


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