Too Much, Too Soon

Rookie pilot with fresh instrument rating launches into potential ice at night with all the cards stacked against him


As much as it pains some people to admit it, light airplanes are seldom the kind of go-anywhere-anytime transportation tools most pilots would like them to be. Generally speaking, the smaller the airplane, the less capable it is to perform all-weather duty.

The limitations of flying light aircraft are such that weather can easily overwhelm any pilot who does not both recognize and accept the fact that sometimes the wheels ought to stay on the ground. While thats a lesson instructors and examiners try to instill in every private and instrument applicant, sometimes the lesson comes too late to do the pilot much good.

The temptation to push the envelope of both airplane and pilot is strongest when the airplane is seen as a commodity and when the destination is particularly appealing. Such was the case for a recently minted private pilot who found just how cruel a teacher experience can be.

The pilot received his private certificate at the end of August 1999, and in December leased a Piper Cherokee 140 from an individual to use to commute between his home in Wichita and a job site in Denver. In the months after he got his license, he flew a lot and also took instrument training. When he got his instrument rating March 6, 2000, hed accumulated more than 210 hours in less than eight months, including 110 in the Cherokee 140.

Less than two weeks after obtaining his instrument rating, the pilot was in Denver, planning to fly home for the weekend with two co-workers. Thursday night, the pilot called the Denver FSS to get an early look at the next evenings weather potential. The briefing was innocuous, covering only the fact that marginal VFR conditions were expected in Kansas.

The next afternoon, the pilot got another weather briefing, with an anticipated takeoff of about 5 p.m. The briefer was much more circumspect, saying, It doesnt look promising.

There was an Airmet in effect for icing that covered both the origin and the destination of the flight. Occasional moderate rime or mixed icing was possible up to 18,000 feet.

A couple hours later, the pilot again called the flight service station and filed a VFR flight plan to Benton, Kan., a suburb of Wichita. The briefer asked him if he had the Airmets for turbulence, and he said, Yes, I have all the Airmets, and the weather. Im hoping to go VFR. If I have to, Ill switch to IFR en route.

The briefer also asked if he had the Airmet for icing and the pilot again assured him he had the Airmets.

The pilot called his wife at about 5 p.m. central time, an hour before he took off, and said hed be home in about four hours. He didnt mention the possibility of adverse weather and she expected to see him about 9:30 p.m.

The flight took off as scheduled, and an hour later the pilot called Denver Center and reported he was over the Kit Carson Airport at 8,000 feet. He said he was VFR on top and wanted to file an IFR flight plan. The Center controller got his flight plan and cleared him to maintain VFR on top.

The pilot then contacted Flight Watch and requested the local conditions at Wichita. The news wasnt encouraging. Visibility was three miles with light rain and mist, ceiling was 500 feet overcast, and both temperature and dewpoint were 3C. The pilot reported he was cruising between overcast layers at 7,500 feet.

A few minutes later, the pilot asked Denver Center to revise his destination to Wichita instead of the satellite airport, which does not have a precision approach. Benton has GPS and VOR approaches, but both minimums were higher than the reported ceiling. Wichita, on the other hand, has three ILS runways, each with minimums of 200 feet. He was cleared to go direct ICT.

About 20 minutes later, the pilot was handed off to Kansas City Center, but did not acknowledge the call. The controller made several additional calls, and finally the pilot answered, saying his reception was weak and scratchy. He reported being in the clouds at 7,000 feet and requested an IFR clearance.

He was cleared direct and told to maintain 7,000 feet, but as the Denver Center controller coordinated the handoff with Kansas City Center, he noticed the airplane had descended to 6,300 feet.

For the next 10 minutes, the controllers tried in vain to contact the airplane as it continued to descend slowly. They enlisted the help of a nearby aircraft to relay communications, but to no avail.

The Cherokee stayed on the radar screens for 25 minutes after reporting being in the clouds, descending 2,500 feet during that time. At one point, it appeared the airplane was in a turn, although its unclear whether the pilot lost control or was diverting due to weather.

Denver Center received a broken transmission with two of the numbers in the accident airplanes call sign and an open mike. The pilots of two other airplanes reported hearing a transmission from a pilot saying the aircraft was going down. The pilots reported hearing screams in the background.

One of those airplanes reported picking up light to moderate rime ice at 6,000 feet.

At about 8:15 p.m. central time, the Cherokee crashed near the small town of Dighton. All aboard were killed.

At three nearby airports, the weather at the time of the crash included temperatures and dewpoints of 32 degrees, light rain and low ceilings. A law enforcement officer at the crash site reported visibility of about an eighth of a mile in fog and rain.

An examination of the wreckage showed a ground impact scar heading in the opposite direction of the pilots route of flight. The ground scar and the condition of the wreckage suggested a severe nose-down attitude at the time of impact. Most of the airframe was consumed by fire.

There was no evidence of a preimpact malfunction, including the vacuum pump or attitude indicator.

In its finding of probable cause, the NTSB blamed the pilots inadvertent stall into the ground following his flight into adverse weather conditions. Because of the fire, its unknown whether the airplane was iced up at the time of the accident or the pilot succumbed to spatial disorientation in the clouds.

In either event, the NTSB finding backs into the real cause of the crash – the pilots decision-making, both while planning the flight and executing it.

Keep in mind the pilot had obtained his instrument rating only 11 days before the accident flight and had been flying for less than a year.

The accident report does not specify whether the airplane was equipped with an autopilot, but such equipment is not commonly installed on Cherokee 140s. Though some may swear by their capabilities, they are light-duty airplanes that fare better as low-cost trainers than cross-country transports.

Without delving into the pilots instrument training, its impossible to say how much of the pilots reported 40 hours of instrument time was in actual IMC. Its not uncommon for pilots to get an instrument rating with only a handful of hours of actual instrument time, the rest being simulated.

As most instrument pilots know, the first long trip as PIC in the clouds can be nerve-wracking and tiring. Try tacking onto that flying at night after working all day, with home beckoning at the destination runway.

The events that conspired to bring down the aerial commuter are insidious. Many pilots would fly the route in a heartbeat through the IMC. Or at night. Or after work. Or in a Cherokee 140. How many would combine two? Three? Four?

The cliche says a certificate or a rating merely endows the holder with the license to learn. In this case, the pilots confidence kept him off the ground when he should have stepped back to consider the rocky road ahead.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Aircraft Profile – Cherokee 140.”

-by Ken Ibold


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