All Aircraft Bite Fools
It was a few minutes after midnight when the pilot and his friend took the Cessna 150, a popular single-engine two-seater training aircraft, out for a local flight around a general aviation airport now known as the Colorado Air and Space Port.
In 2011, the state of Colorado applied to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to certify the airport as Colorado’s first spaceport, although there were no actual plans for suborbital take-off flights. Seven years later, their application was approved, and the spaceport is now waiting for a space company to be licensed as an operator.
However, this late-night flight was in 2014 and so the spaceport, just a few miles from Denver International, was still known as Front Range: a small general aviation airport which acted as the base for a few flying schools and air rescue training.
The pilot held a commercial pilot certificate and was qualified as a ground instructor, so it is reasonable to assume that he knew something about flight safety. He was instrument-rated: certified to fly in non-visual conditions using instruments alone. He’d accumulated 99 hours in simulated environments and 14.7 hours actually flying in instrument conditions. In the two months before the accident, he’d logged 27 hours night-flying and half an hour in simulated instrument conditions.
It is unclear whether he had kept up with the minimum requirements to fly in instrument conditions or to take passengers.
On the 30th of May at 23:59, the weather at Denver International Airport was calm with mist reducing the visibility to two and a half miles (approx 5km) and clouds at 300 feet. Half an hour later, another weather observation showed scattered clouds as low as 200 feet.
Night flying can be under visual flight rules if the pilot has a clear view of the ground However, the low cloud cover that night meant that any flights would be under “night instrument meteorological conditions”. The pilot must focus on the instruments because it isn’t possible to orient oneself by looking out at the ground and the horizon. Flying with instruments is not instinctive but requires focus and concentration, especially for someone with only a hundred hour’s instrument experience, most of which was simulated.
That night, the pilot only planned a short local area flight and so there was no need to talk to file a flight plan or to talk to air traffic control.
It wasn’t until 3:30 that someone noticed that the aircraft was missing. After the sun came up, Front Range Airport personnel discovered the crumpled wreckage in a wheat field near the airport.
Radar returns showed that the Cessna 150 had departed normally at 00:04. They followed the traffic pattern around in a standard circuit. This means that after take-off, the pilot keeps making 90° turns to create a sort of rectangle while keeping the runway in sight (crosswind, downwind, base and final), until the aircraft is in the correct position to land on the same runway that it took off from. This is what the Cessna did: climbing to a height of 900 feet above ground level and then following the pattern back to final. It landed at 00:10.
At 00:18, they departed again. This time, the Cessna seemed to drift to the left as they climbed away at rate of about 300 feet per minute. The pilot turned right, towards the northwest. As they reached about 640 feet, still climbing, the pilot started a left turn. They had gained only another hundred feet when the left turn began to tighten into a steep bank. Suddenly, the Cessna started descending at 1,900 feet per minute. The radar lost sight of the aircraft at 140 feet above the ground.
The left wing struck the ground first. The crashing aircraft created a small crater in the field before bouncing back into the air, coming down hard a short distance further.
The pilot was thrown clear of the aircraft; the passenger was slumped in the remains of the cockpit. Both of the occupants were killed on impact.
The right wing had detached from the aircraft and was found lying on top of the crumpled left wing. Glass and pieces of aircraft fuselage were scattered between the crater and the wreckage. The emergency locator beacon had not activated but was still armed and attached to the antenna.
Despite the violence of the crash, the main controls of the aircraft, the elevators and rudder and ailerons, were still connected and moved freely. The flaps were retracted and the trim was set to neutral, as one would expect. The fuel tanks had plenty of fuel.
In the centre of the crater was a slash mark from the propeller, which showed that the engine was still running when it struck the ground.
There was nothing mechanically wrong with the aircraft that hadn’t happened in the crash.
The first responders found a GoPro camera in the wreckage, miraculously still in one piece. The data card was unharmed. The footage did not include the accident flight but it did include seven other clips that appeared to have been taken the day before and the day of the accident.
The GoPro had been mounted to the instrument panel area in front of the pilot. It faced backwards to capture the faces of the pilot and the front-seat passenger and a partial view outside the left and right windows.
Although the accident flight was not included, these video clips told their own story. Even though they had been filmed earlier, they were included in the final report as evidence of the pilot’s operational habits.
In the first video, which seemed to have been taken the the day before, the pilot and a passenger entered the aircraft and adjusted their seatbelts. The pilot looked at his phone and then reached back to grab a notepad before ending the recording.
In the second video, we see the pilot and the same passenger as the Cessna taxis to the runway. The pilot runs through his power checks as he follows the taxiway and he then speaks to air traffic control. The video ends before they reach the runway.
The third video starts at the take-off roll, with the pilot and the same passenger onboard. The Cessna 150 takes off and the pilot follows the traffic pattern for a single circuit, the same as he had done the night of the accident. As he flies, he lifts his smartphone to take a few photographs of himself. He clearly takes a selfie on the base leg and seems to take another during the final approach. The passenger also takes photographs of the flight and himself. The GoPro footage ends as the aircraft clears the runway.
The fourth video, probably taken the day of the accident, shows a new passenger in the cockpit with the pilot. The aircraft follows the taxiwa but this time, the pilot does not appear to do his power checks. The Cessna enters the runway and takes off. The passenger has his hands on the controls, following the pilot’s movements, but does not appear to be actively manipulating the controls. Then the pilot makes a series of abrupt movements on the controls, entertaining the passenger by putting them briefly into negative-G. The pilot takes a few selfies and then they land and taxi back to the hangar area. The passenger gets out to let a new passenger into the cockpit, the third passenger to appear on the videos. Passenger 3 takes multiple selfies as they taxi to the runway. The pilot checks the automatic weather recording for the airport but does not appear to ever use a checklist or to do any pre-flight checks. The passenger holds up his phone to record out the front as they start the take-off run. As the aircraft takes off, the pilot reaches to move the passenger’s phone out of the way, as it is blocking his line of sight. Then, as they climb away, the pilot gets his own phone out and begins taking selfies. The passenger also takes a few selfies and the video ends as the aircraft turns crosswind.
The fifth video appears to be during the same flight. They are still in the air as the pilot interacts with his phone. Then he reached for the control yoke for some mild negative-G moments. After landing, they return to the hangar area while the passenger takes more selfies. The previous two passengers walk out to the hangar area to greet the pilot and the passenger, who disembarks. They all take photographs of each other and the plane. A fourth passenger enters the aircraft as the video ends.
The sixth video shows the pilot and the new passenger taxiing to the runway and then taking off. As the aircraft climbs away from the runway, the pilot looks at his phone and taps at it. He turns crosswind and then interacts with the phone again. They turn downwind and the pilot rocks the wings while the passenger takes selfies. Then the pilot lands the plane. He returns to the hangar area and shuts down the engine.
These videos repeatedly show a dangerous lack of attention to the aircraft. The pilot is regularly distracted from his surroundings while he took selfies and interacted with his phone during critical phases of flight. Even on final approach, just seconds before landing, he seems to be more interested in his phone than in the plane.
I would not automatically assume from this that he would be equally inattentive on a night flight such as the accident flight. Except that on the final clip retrieved from the GoPro, taken that same evening, the pilot goes back to taking selfies.
When the footage starts, the pilot is in the cockpit with a new passenger, his fifth passenger over the course of the GoPro filming. The rest of the group is in shot, standing behind the aircraft. The pilot starts the engine and listens to the automatic weather information, which announces that the weather is calm and overcast at three hundred feet, the same weather as was forecast for the fatal crash.
The pilot follows the taxiway to the runway, checking the controls for freedom of movement. They enter the runway and the pilot applies power for take off. The Cessna has just lifted off from the runway when the pilot holds up his phone and points it at himself. The cockpit area fills with the light of the flash and then goes dark again. The pilot then interacts with the camera app on the phone phone, seemingly to look at the photographs or perhaps the camera settings.
They land but, while the Cessna is still travelling to a halt on the runway, the pilot looks down to interact with the phone again. The recording ends.
After seeing this footage, it is not hard to conclude what happened that night. At night, above the cloud cover, all they could see was the dark and the mist and the cloud. Distracted by taking photographs of himself and blinded by the flash, the pilot could not help but become disoriented. With no horizon or view of the ground, he couldn’t quickly make sense of his position. The turn became steeper and steeper until they flew straight into the ground.
There’s an old saying in aviation: All airplanes bite fools. I guess we need a modern corollary: no plane waits for the fool and his selfie.