He’s a Terror in a Twin

26 May 17 26 Comments

Sometimes it’s obvious how an accident report is going to end from the very first sentence.

NTSB Identification: CEN15FA400

“The airplane owner, who was a noninstrument-rated private pilot and did not hold a multiengine airplane rating, was conducting a visual flight rules (VFR), personal cross-county flight in the multiengine airplane.”

I almost did not bother to read any further, I have to admit. But something about the inevitability of this recent accident made it impossible to tear my eyes away.

The pilot held a private pilot’s certificate with a single-engine land airplane rating. For the avoidance of doubt, that means that he fly single-engine airplanes on land in clear weather. No multi-engine aircraft, no flying in clouds.

At his last medical, in 2003, he reported 1,000 hours flight time, of which 200 were in the last six months.

The pilot’s daughter said that he flew F-4 Phantoms. A Big Bear employee also commented that the pilot had told him that he flew F-4 Phantoms in the military and then transitioned to helicopters and was injured in Vietnam. The pilot had also told him that he was a doctor and “had an MD”. But the employee had some reservations, as some of the things the pilot had told him turned out not to be true.

He was right to be skeptical. The pilot had served in the US military, but in the Marine Corps as a lance corporal: one rank above private first class and below corporal. There is no record of any military flights at all. He did not fly for the Marines and certainly not F-4 Phantoms.

I’m not going to bother with the rest of the small fry stuff: medicals out of the date, lack of training, no airworthiness certificate for the Cessna, etc… because although these show a generally slapdash attitude, they did not directly contribute to the accident.

His log book, which covered from 2006 to the accident in 2015, showed 801 hours flight time in total, of which 255 were listed in single engine aircraft and 218 in multi-engine airplanes.

The aircraft was a Cessna 310H, a six-seat, low-wing, twin-engined aircraft, which the pilot had purchased in July, 2014. The pilot’s logbook showed that he first flew the twin the day after he got it, with no reference whatsoever to any training in the aircraft. There were 72 entries in the log book flying the twin, including with passengers, despite his lack of a type rating for twin engine or any training in the Cessna 310. He had a friend who was also a pilot and one of his logbook entries had the note, “I let [him] fly part way back.”

There was a 2013 entry showing 10.5 hours of flying in a Piper Apache twin engine with a total multi-engine flight time of 150 hours, but the entry was the first multi-engine flight in the log book. The log book is specifically meant to prove the individual flights a pilot flew in order to demonstrate the total hours but in this case, the ‘total number’ carried over simply appears in 2013 with references to to justify why.

His log book had a number of other interesting entries.

“Flew over parade 10 feet off ground made six passes.”

“Landed on Rt 66 4 July Parade. With Mayor.”

“Flew to the barn landed on Rt. 66 for auto show.”

Now yes, we’ve all heard of a pilot landing on a highway in an emergency. But for normal operation, it is illegal to operate an aircraft in the US closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle or structure. Buzzing a parade or landing on the highway to attend a car show is definitely not reasonable.

Another entry said:

“Big Bear airshow. made it. speed passes over runway.”

A staff member at Big Bear City Airport remembered the day well.

From the final report:

When the airport opened for departures, the pilot departed with passengers. Upon the pilot’s return to the airport, he turned the airplane onto the final leg of the airport traffic pattern and did not have the airplane radio on. The shows’s air boss cleared another airplane to depart from the active runway while the accident pilot was flying his airplane on short final. He stated that, instead of the pilot offsetting the airplane to the side of the runway during the go-around, the pilot performed a “low-level left turn over the crowd” with the landing gear and flaps extended.
So the man had a bit of reputation at Big Bear already. He kept the Cessna 310 there in the summer and then later at Barstow-Daggett Airport.

About a week before the accident, the pilot asked one of the staff at Big Bear City Airport if he would go along on a trip as co-pilot. According to the staff member, the pilot asked “a lot of different pilots” to go with him. The staff member said that the pilot had purchased the Cessna 150 not too long ago and that the aircraft radios were very old and the instruments were not all that good.

On the 4th of September 2015, the day before the accident, the pilot fuelled up the aircraft at Big Bear City Airport, purchasing 20 gallons of fuel.

He was in frequent touch with his daughter and, on the day of the accident, she said that he departed Big Bear City Airport at 6:15 in the morning local time, arriving at Barstow-Dagget Airport at 6:30 to pick up his passengers. His plan was to then fly to Amarillo Texas by following Interstate 40. They would have dinner in Amarillo and then return the same day. She said that there was another pilot onboard and that they had a GPS.

The staff member at Big Bear Airport confirmed that the pilot departed there “pretty early in the morning” to pick up passengers elsewhere.

He appears to have picked up his passengers at Barstow-Daggett Airport in Daggett, California. Then he continued with four souls on board to Flagstaff where he wanted to refuel before continuing.

His first contact with air traffic control that day was to contact Flagstaff tower.

N1099Q: Flagstaff traffic this is Piper Comanche N1099Z I’m sorry quebec we’re approximately thirty miles miles west of the field anybody know what how the weather is down there you socked in there cause we are flying over the top here.

Now I don’t generally like to pick on GA pilots’ radio telephony and lord knows I’ve made more than my share of bad radio calls but as a starting point, there’s a lot wrong here.

First off, his identification is wrong. The aircraft is not a Piper Comanche (a single-engine small plane), it’s a Cessna 310. Different model, different make, different number of engines.

He then got his call sign wrong and then corrected it without repeating it, which is a bit confusing. He asks “you socked in there”, not quite standard terminology but not unreasonable for a US airport: If an airport is socked in, it means it is closed because of bad weather. And finally, flying over the top means he is flying above the clouds, out of sight of the ground. Rules differ by country as to whether a visual pilot can fly “on top” of the clouds, presuming he didn’t fly through the clouds to get there, but in the the US, you must be an instrumented rated pilot to do this. The pilot was not instrument rated and should maintain visual contact with the ground.

[I got this this wrong! Apparently VFR on top is fine in the US as long as you don’t need to pass through the clouds and are not a student pilot. Thanks to the people who let me know!]

Flagstaff Tower: Comanche 1099Q, Flagstaff Tower. We are open. The uh… the ATIS is also broadcasting. We’re 900 broken, 1,600 broken, 2,400 overcast, visibility 10.

Translation: the airfield is open and you could have gotten this information by listening to the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS).

This is a continual broadcast of airport and weather information on a specific frequency. When you fly into a busy airport, you listen to the ATIS, where each update is identified by a letter. Then you tell air traffic control that you have received ATIS information [letter], for example information charlie to let them know that you checked the current airport information and which version. This means that if there’s been an update since you listened, they can warn you.

The point is that you can get the information on your own, without tying up the frequency and an air traffic controller. This controller is pretty nice though and gives him the key information: broken clouds at 900 feet, another layer of broken clouds at 1,600 feet and overcast at 2,400 feet, with a (horizontal) visibility of 10 miles.

It’s no wonder that the Comanche, sorry, no, I mean Cessna, can’t see the ground.

N1099Q: Oh thank you, I just turned the ATIS then. I appreciate it thank you Flagstaff.

At least he’s understood the issue. But in terms of brief and to the point radio calls, this isn’t great.

N1099Q: Flagstaff tower 1099Q about to land. We are approximately 10 miles west of the airport.

Bet that ‘about to land’ woke up the controller!

Flagstaff Tower: Comanche 99Q, Flagstaff Tower. The uh… We’re IFR at the airport 900 broken 1600 broken visibility 10.

Translation: I just told you about the cloud cover. This is not suitable for Visual Flight Rules and yet you do not seem to be making an Instrument approach.

N1099Q: We are now approximately 8,000 feet we have visibility looks like greater than 10 miles.

At 8,000 feet he can’t possibly have the ground in sight, there’s three layers of cloud below him. His horizontal visiblity may be 10 miles but that’s not all that useful. Flying under visual flight rules, he still can’t descend through the cloud.

Flagstaff Tower: Comanche 99Q I concur with the visibility. Uh, are you requesting something special?

ATC is at a loss as to what’s going on. Edit: ATC is clearly hinting that he should be requesting special-VFR, which I missed. See the comments for more. Regardless, the controller doesn’t get a response. Luckily for the pilot, though, the weather is getting better.

Flagstaff Tower: Comanche 99Q the field is now VFR. The ceiling is … well I have a scattered layer of 1,200 ceiling 1,600 report a right base for runway 21.

The clouds have cleared enough that the controller is happy for the Comanche Cessna to come in under Visual Flight Rules. It’s now scattered clouds at 1,200 feet with the cloud ceiling at 1,600 feet. He asks the pilot to report when he’s making the right base turn for runway 21.

N1099Q: Report right base for runway 21, will do, quebec.

This call is a straight-forward acknowledgement. Quebec is simply a reference to the Q in the call sign, shortened from 99Q, which the controller shortened from N1099Q.

Flagstaff Tower: Comanche 99Q, verify you have Information Charlie.

This is that Automatic Terminal Information Service we talked about earlier. The controller is making sure that the pilot has listened to the most recent version, C.

N1099Q: Copy that we have we got a little bit of a … here.

Translation:
No, sorry, I’m not sure what he’s trying to say here. Best guess: I have received your transmission and I can’t deal with it right now.

Flagstaff Tower: Comanche 99Q, roger. The wind is 220 at 8, temperature 16 density altitude is 8,400 dew point 13 and the altimeter 30.26.

The ATC controller gives the pilot the relevant information for landing. The altimeter setting is important: the pilot sets that in the cockpit so that his altitude is shown correctly for the current air pressure. If that setting is wrong, the plane will appear, from the cockpit, to be higher or lower than it actually is, which is a problem when trying to land an aircraft on the very specific level where the runway is.

N1099Q: 30.36, thank you.
Flagstaff Tower: Altimeter 30.26. Twenty-six.

I imagine the controller’s voice getting a wee bit stressed by now as he corrects the pilot, bear in mind the pilot should have already had this set up after listening to the ATIS.

N1099Q: Flagstaff tower this is quebec were gonna report left base runway 21 I just want to confirm that quebec.

LEFT base?

Some airports have both right and left-hand circuits. Here’s a quick sketch to show you how this might look:

Left and Right Circuit Diagram

The important point here is that generally in a circuit, all the aircraft are going the same way. The Flagstaff controller had asked him to report right base, for a right hand circuit. But the aircraft has just let him know that he will report left base. You can see left and right base on the right side of the image. Sure, the controller can keep the traffic separate but part of that is knowing who is where. Also, it makes no sense.

Flagstaff Tower: Comanche 99Q, are you set up for a right base or a left base? You’re coming from the west, you said.

If you look at the image, you can see that if you were coming down to the runway from the top, joining the pattern on right base would be pretty easy. Coming in from the top and then joining the left base, however, means flying past the runway and turning around. This is why the controller is confused. There’s no good reason to do this.

N1099Q: Oh, its showing left base on my GPS left traffic on runway 21

Note the reference to the GPS, it’ll be important later.

Flagstaff Tower: Comanche 99Q uh we can make whichever way you want I just need to know which direction you’re coming from.

Are Flagstaff always this laid back? Because I’d be having kittens by now.

N1099Q: Well we’re comin… we’re coming from 270 right now.

270° is west, sure enough. The aircraft is travelling due east. Coming in from the west. Gottit. Now, I have some sympathy for this because I have gotten myself completely confused once or twice. But it should be pretty easy to sort out from here.

Flagstaff Tower: From 270 you should be west of the…airport. Where was the destination you left from?

Flagstaff Tower understandably is wanting to be absolutely clear on this.

N1099Q: Well, we can report… let’s see, the winds are from uh what…

Nooooo. The answer is “Barstow-Daggett Airport”.

Flagstaff Tower: Comanche 99Q the wind is 240 at 6. Just report base.

Flagstaff tower appear to have completely given up. Left base, right base, we don’t care. Just tell us before you turn final.

N1099Q: Well…we’re…right now…
Flagstaff Tower: Comanche 99Q, that came in broken and unreliable.

I’ve never heard ATC refer to radio transmission as unreliable but I can understand the controller’s feelings.

N1099Q: The winds are 210.
Flagstaff Tower: Wind 210 at 8.
Flagstaff Tower: Comanche 99Q, how far from the airport are you?

Translation: I’m desperately trying to find you so that I know what the heck you are doing.

N1099Q: We’re downwind 21 left. We’re setting up for base for 21 left.

Left base means a left-hand circuit. 21 left means the left-hand runway where there are two parallel runways, which Flagstaff does not have.

Flagstaff Tower: Okay, we only have runway 21. Okay, I see you now. You are on a left downwind for runway 21. Cleared to land, wind 210 at 8.

Translation: Let’s get this guy on the ground ASAP.

N1099Q: …the end of the runway now…on the downwind we’ll make base to final.
Flagstaff Tower: Comanche 99Q, runway 21, cleared to land.

Translation: Do not give me a running commentary of your flight, just confirm my call.

N1099Q: Cleared to land runway 21.

Well done! And to the relief of everyone involved, the landing seems to have been just fine.

Flagstaff Tower: N99Q, are you going to the wiseman aviation? The FBO?

A Fixed Base Operator is a commercial company that provides aviation services at an airport, for example fuel.

N1099Q: Yes, we want to gas up. Can we exit?

The controller gives him instructions to the self-serve fuel point and the details of the Fixed Base Operator, probably with a big sigh of relief.

For the FBO employee, on the other hand, the issues had just begun. The employee saw the Cessna 310 taxi to the fuel pumps where it came perilously close to an Eclipse jet that was parked nearby. Then it just about ran into the golf cars parked near the FBO building. When it arrived at the self-serve fuel station, it knocked over a ladder with one of its propellers.

The pilot told the FBO employee that he hoped there would be no more clouds and that he wanted 75 gallons of fuel.

He pointed east and said that they had another two hours to their destination. The employee remembers that they said they were flying to Texas, he thought Amarillo but wasn’t sure. He overheard one of them talking about their brand new GPS and that they were having some trouble with it.

The employee showed the pilot how to use the self-serve fuel pump. The pilot handed him the cash for the fuel and the rest of the occupants of the aircraft got out. One of them fuelled up the aircraft while the rest went into the aviation facility.

The pilot called for an abbreviated weather briefing for a visual flight which he described as from Flagstaff to Amarillo, Texas. The general aviation airport in Amarillo is Tradewind Airport, with the identifier TDW. However, the pilot identified his destination airport as L51, which is Heller Farm Airport, in Winifred, Montana. Winifred is 1,100 miles (1,770 km) north of Amarillo.

The weather briefer caught the error and gave the pilot the correct weather for Tradewind Airport in Amarillo, Texas as well as for Amarillo International Airport.

After the Cessna was fuelled and everyone was back on board, the Cessna started up its engines and then began to taxi, without any contact to Air Traffic Control. It taxied past the Flagstaff tower and then turned right onto the main taxiway, continuing directly towards runway 21, where SkyWest flight 2992 was on short final and cleared to land. The tower controller, receiving no reply from the Cessna, issued a go-around to SkyWest 2992. The airliner broke off its approach as the Cessna taxied onto the runway.

The Cessna positioned itself and then started the take-off roll as the pilot made the first call to Air Traffic Control.

The controller at Flagstaff Tower, not surprisingly, was unimpressed. He instructed the Cessna to abort the take off and exit the runway immediately.

(I like to imagine him saying “and don’t come back” at this point but of course he was much too polite to do so)

After the Cessna had vacated the runway and stopped (blocking a ramp entrance in the process), the pilot had a “lengthy conversation” with the controller, in which he explained that he wasn’t aware that there was a problem because his radio had not been turned on.

The controller told him to phone the tower.

SkyWest flight 2992 came in again and landed safely, although the flight crew did make a nervous call to ask what the heck just happened. They were told that it was ‘a case of situational awareness’.

Meanwhile the Flagstaff ATC tower controller spoke to the Cessna pilot on the phone. He said that the pilot didn’t seem to be upset.

The FLG ATC tower controller stated that, during his telephone conversation with the accident pilot following the runway incursion, the pilot “kind of missed the point,” “came up with excuses” for the runway incursion, and did not know there was another airplane “out there” during the runway incursion. The controller stated that, when he told the pilot that there was an airliner on final, and it was at that point that the pilot “realized the gravity of the situation.” The pilot then said that he had been flying for 50 years and nothing like this happened before.

I bet the controller was pretty upset, though.

After this, they entered the runway and took off with no further issue. They remained low as they departed from runway 21 and then after about 1,000 feet, the Cessna went into a climb and entered a left turn, heading northeast.

Amarillo is due east of Flagstaff.

After they departed, radar data showed that the aircraft turned again towards the north, rather than head east towards Amarillo. As they continued to fly towards Montana, the weather began to close in. They would have been flying into rain showers and in instrument meteorological conditions, which no one in the aircraft was qualified for.

The following day, the pilot’s daughter became concerned as she had not heard from her father. The aircraft wreckage, with no survivors, was discovered in Colorado at 11,500 feet… on the side of a mountain. They had flown directly into the rising terrain at high speed: the wreckage path was about 1,050 feet, northbound, travelling up the mountain slope.

Accident Site: note the cloud line

The Cessna was destroyed by the impact forces: both engines were separated from the airframe and the propellers were separated from the engines. The instrument panel was destroyed. The destruction was such that it wasn’t possible to test much on the plane but there was no obvious sign of mechanical failure. All the evidence pointed towards a straight-forward controlled flight into terrain, no doubt obscured by the clouds.

The location of the crash was consistent with a northbound flight towards Montana, which the pilot had referenced in his weather briefing when he identified his destination as L51. There was no evidence that he wanted to go to Montana and his daughter said that he did not know anyone in Montana and that he’d specifically told her he was going to Amarillo.

However, on the Amarillo charts, there is one reference to L51: it’s the length of the runway, 5,100 feet. If the pilot and his passengers had misread this as the identifier once, they may well have done so again.

The hand-held GPS was never recovered but the daughter stated that they had hand-held GPS for the flight and the FBO employee recalled the conversation that it was new and something was not quite right. If they entered L51 for their destination, the GPS would have routed them due north to Winifred, Montana. The local weather was much worse, with scattered clouds at 4,700 feet, broken at 6,000 feet, broken at 7,000 feet, wind gusting between 8 and 39 mph (12-63kph) and reports of lightning: not at all good weather for a visual flight over the mountains, let alone the mountains that they didn’t know were there.

PROBABLE CAUSE
The noninstrument-rated pilot’s improper judgment and his failure to maintain situational awareness, which resulted in the flight’s encounter with instrument meteorological conditions and controlled flight into terrain during cruise flight.

Which is sadly what one expects when hearing about a pilot buying and flying an aircraft that he has no experience in and has not been trained for. In the end, though, it wasn’t the aircraft that killed him but the GPS — it could just as easily have happened in the Piper Comanche he kept identifying himself as.

The truth is, I’m simply surprised that he survived that long.

Category: Accident Reports,

26 Comments

  • When reading this, I also had come to the exact same conclusion as Sylvia: Surprised that he survived that long.
    I did over 3300 hours in Cessna 310s, mainly one that was registered PH-STR, later N444ST. The 310 is a delight to fly, but a bit more demanding than for instance a Piper Aztec (which I also flew). The 310 has split flaps that when extended will add drag, so a “low pass” with gear AND flaps (fully?) extended is not a recommended configuration.
    What is also perhaps even more surprising is that this pilot did not attract the attention from the FAA long before.
    He must have been attracting attention for repeated infringements.
    It is obvious to me that the reason why he gave his type as a “Comanche” is to disguise that he was (illegally) flying a twin since ATC conversations are recorded.
    If a pilot is told to “call the tower”, this is nearly the aviation equivalent of getting a “ticking off” from a traffic cop, explaining why the traffic offence was dangerous. The conversation with ATC, his runway incursion and his total failure to appreciate why he had to make that call in the first place, together with the highly unprofessional manner of his arrival, the wrong identification of the class and type of aircraft, would have set off alarm bells in the minds of many air traffic controllers who, at some other airports, might well have called for a ground vehicle to block the aircraft, preventing it from departing, and call the FAA (or CAA). That omission sadly cost the lives of the pilot and his passengers.

    • Well, I wondered that about the Comanche but he logged it correctly in his logbook, so it didn’t seem like he was attempting to disguise the fact that it was a twin. It’s very odd.

    • Piper actually made a Twin Comanche from 1962 to 1972. The pilot obviously got his twins mixed up.

  • My first reaction? “What a maroon!”

    I’ve forgotten (if I ever knew) when private licenses expire in the US. (I stopped using mine a long time ago — the northeast has so much traffic that most places are easier to get to commercially (or by car).) If he’d really been flying 50 years, I wonder whether he was still compos mentis — or was simply a stubborn ornery cuss (quite a few of those flying in the US when I was) who couldn’t be told anything, especially not that he was way out of his depth. (I doubt Flagstaff would have thought to block the plane from moving; that would be “infringing his personal liberties” (a serious issue in the Southwest) — and would have made him their problem instead of someone else’s.

    It’s a real pity he took three people with him; I’m a bit surprised they didn’t get frightened off the plane at Flagstaff, but his log entries sound like he could bluster his way past anything.

    NB: there’s a typo about halfway through — plane type referred to as “130”

    • I agree with you, I can’t imagine Flagstaff stopping him from taking off (there’s another similar case in the UK which I will try to find). He certainly does appear to have been stubborn from the start but I think also flying less, so that as he got older, he was slower to react and running behind the plane, which combined to make even simple things a struggle.

      • US Pilot Certificates do not have an expiration date — as long as you can pass a medical the certificate remains valid. There are plenty of pilots in their 70’s and 80’s that safely operate aircraft in both VMC and IMC every day.

        • As per my above comment, I don’t think that there’s any question that there are pilots in their 70s and 80s who are confident and competent. To be clear, he held a private pilot certificate with a single-engine land airplane rating, however his medical was out of date and his bi-annual flight review was overdue.

  • I know of a case where a pilot broke many rules and got away with it – for a long time. But not so far as to result in a lethal crash.
    One day ATC, tipped off, set up a trap: They were made aware that there were issues with the legality of the flight.
    ATC did not say anything, they just were biding their time until this pilot accepted take-off clearance. That was the dividing line between still being legal and breaking the law.
    At the very moment he entered the runway to line up, his take-off clearance was cancelled and a ground vehicle raced onto the runway and blocked the aircraft.

    Sylvia does have a point regarding giving the wrong type of aircraft on ATC. But still, openly giving a type of aircraft one is not rated to fly by announcing it on the radio is one thing, one never knows who is listening. My example was about information that became known to someone in the CAA who had been watching this guy for a while until he could involve ATC to set up a trap.

    The man who is featuring in this blog had been breaking many rules for a long time and it would have been very possible that the FAA also had been watching out for him. A note from the local FAA GADO to relevant ATC centres and FBOs to inform them of any irregularities involving this pilot at once could have been the trigger, just like it did with the other pilot.

    A logbook is not nearly as open to general scrutiny and an alternative can always be opened for submission to the CAA if so desired. And anyway, log book entries are no legal evidence of lawbreaking in themselves.

    On a personal note: Age in itself is not proof that someone cannot perform at a very high level.
    Bob Hoover was still doing aerobatic shows in a Commander twin, with both engines shut down, until the FAA stopped him. He was 77.
    And speaking for myself: It was getting too expensive to renew my licence when corporate aviation collapsed. I was 65 at the time, but I passed my driving test on a 53-seat bus at age 72.
    I regularly drive coaches on day tours. My reactions and abilities are no worse than those of many 20 or even 30 years my junior.
    Age in itself need not be the deciding factor. But a screwed-up mind is.

    • I definitely agree that age is *not* proof that someone cannot perform at a very high level. Rudy, I’d get on your aircraft or bus any day of the week.

      What I was thinking was, if you are already taking shortcuts and barely managing to keep things straight, then a relatively unimportant slowing of reactions could cause more problems than it should, tipping the balance from a barely competent pilot to an incompetent one. But then, that’s nothing compared to the effect of fatigue or even just having a few drinks the night before, so I agree with you that I gave it more importance than I should have.

  • One thing: In the comments, a remark is made about “blocking the plane from moving being a serious infringement of personal liberties”. I fail to see how ATC, acting as or on behalf of the competent authorities to prevent a serious break of the law being committed could be ‘in serious trouble themselves’. How can anyone be arrested for stopping a crime or serious offence being made ?
    In Europe ATC usually are the ‘competent authority’. Even at a small private airport near where I live, because there is a published IFR approach procedure, ATC are employees of the Irish Aviation Authority. But even if under American jurisdiction, ATC can not act as the direct representatives of the law, would there not ,have been sufficient and reasonable cause to demand that the pilot produce his licence and as this would have clearly been proof of a serious infringement, make a citizen’s arrest?
    If I were to drive a car at high speed through a city without a driving licence, behaving erratically and ignoring the rules, crashing through red traffic lights: if a passer-by were to seize the opportunity if I just were stopped, to grab the keys, preventing me from driving on and called the cops, I would have had a hard time convincing any judge that this person had ‘infringed my personal liberties’. The person who stopped me would be hailed a hero and I would spend time in jail.
    Has our society gone so totally bonkers that ‘personal liberty’ has precedence over common sense and can override considerations of (air) safety? Not to mention law breaking? And not to mention people losing their lives?
    The person who flew this aircraft to his, and his passengers’ death, was more than just a law-breaker. He was someone playing chicken without any regard for the consequences. And in my book that makes him a criminal.

  • Rudy: you ask “Has our society gone so totally bonkers that ‘personal liberty’ has precedence over common sense…?” A two-word answer: gun control. A more detailed answer: there is some difference between a driver who endangers many other people and a pilot who endangers (mostly) himself and his passengers; I expect he would have gotten dealt with sooner had he been flying in the Northeast US because he’d be more likely to endanger other people in those crowded skies(*). He also would have been acting up in an area where individual liberty is built around actions much less likely to kill the performer, let alone the surrounders. In the absence of misconduct far worse than encroaching on the active (on a low-activity airport) when there was plenty of room for a go-around, any action taken by Flagstaff tower could have become a mess that would cost the controller his job (if not his life — recent events make clear that there are some serious loons in the high-and-dry parts of the U.S.)

    My comment on age was phrased badly. IIRC airline pilots are unseated at age 60 (this may be obsolete); if that’s government rules rather than airline policy, I was wondering whether other flying privileges were subject to age restrictions. Obviously a blanket policy would have weaknesses, but I don’t know whether anyone is trying to develop testing that would allow the still-competent to fly while restricting others; I stopped needing to know the rules not long after BIFRs (biennial flight reviews) became effective.

    (*) Exhibit 1 for why I stopped flying: I found out the hard way that New York City on the ground at rush hour has nothing on New York City in the air. (One controller tried to “clear” me for a straight line from New Haven to circa Atlantic City, which would have put my C172 about three times as far from shore as it could safely fly without oxygen supplements for the pilot. (With O2 it might have been only twice as far.)

  • Thanks Chip. I can only agree that there are different rules, regulations as well as a different culture that has a different bearing on how misconduct is dealt with in different parts of the world.

    No way would a pilot in my neck of the woods get away with that “terror in a twin” bravado, but I am convinced that his reckless behaviour would have attracted attention and subsequent correctional action from the civil aviation authorities much, much sooner.
    Thank Heaven that here in Europe it is still a lot more difficult for loons to get hold of a gun than in the USA. For how long? I do hope for a very long time more.

    My example was only to highlight that if members of the public stop reckless behaviour, I am convinced that they would be called a hero, rather than facing a court appearance for violating someone’s liberties.
    Anyway, even a small aircraft, if it were to crash into a densely populated area, has the potential of killing and injuring more people than just the occupants.

    From my own experience, chances are that one will get caught sooner rather than later. Once I was called to Marseille to take over from a colleague whose medical was found to have been a week out of date. It may be possible to get away with doing a flight with an expired type rating (and mark the words “expired type rating”): I had over 2200 hours on type, fully rated with annual proficiency checks in the USA with Flight Safety or SimuFlite, yet came within a hair’s breath of being caught, I most definitely would not have gotten away with it a second time but anyway, by then I was back from Flight Safety in SAT with my renewal in the pocket.

    It had to do with a lack of simulator slots in Paris and Farnborough, this because of very much restricted access to (recurrent) training in the USA, where even a licensed pilot had to get finger printed (for which I had to travel to Paris) and obtain permission from the TSA after a lengthy vetting process. Post- 9-11 the horse had well and truly bolted, but the stable doors were – probably still are – firmly locked.

    An airline- or commercial pilot may continue until the ago of 65, but after 60 (s)he may only operate IFR on multi-crew operations and the other cockpit crew member must be under 60. At least, those were the JAA rules when I retired.
    After 65 the holder of an ATPL can only exercise the privileges of his or her licence as a private or corporate pilot.
    France tried to impose an age limit of 60 for all commercial pilots flying into, out of or over French territory – more than likely to protect the interests of French pilots. This was successfully challenged in the European courts by Easyjet.

  • The part where the controller said “Uh, are you requesting something special?”, he wasn’t at a loss. He was trying to hint to the pilot that he could request an SVFR clearance to get into the airport. The clearance must be requested by the pilot, controllers aren’t supposed to offer or even suggest it. This controller was doing his best to remind the pilot that SVFR was an option.

    • Interesting. In Germany sometimes when getting close to an Airspace D (CTR), establishing radio contact with the tower and announcing “for landing”, I get a Special VFR clearance into the CTR without having requested it. Maybe that was slightly outside the normal rules, but it seems fairly common.

      • In the US, a pilot has to request a Special VFR clearance. Although ATC can “hint” at it to prompt a pilot into requesting it, ATC can’t grant it on their own.

  • Wow, good post. One thing I’d add- when the controlled said “are you requesting something special?”, this was likely a prompt for the pilot to request special VFR. Controllers aren’t allowed to solicit this- pilots must initiate it. So, this controller was really trying to help him out, but the pilot likely didn’t seem to understand the suggestion.

  • I hate to speak ill of the dead, but what a moron. I can’t believe he had over 800 hours TT. It’s pilots like this that make GA unsafe.

  • I can see now why my pilot father (ex-Navy fighter pilot and airline 747 captain) held GA in such contempt. He called it “amateur hour” and even though I am a Cessna pilot/owner myself I have to agree with his assessment.

  • Sad story. Is it ok to be so openly mean (e.g. “moron “) and critical of the pilot in this commentary forum? He is, afterall, dead. The story speaks for itself and maybe this is a time when we just keep our thoughts internalized.

  • Thanks for that. Truly terrifying. Two things leapt out of me. One, VFR on top is not a VFR clearance. It’s acceptable to be VFR on top of clouds, but the phrase VFR on top is a specific IFR clearance. The second tiny detail is when the controller asks the plane if he was looking for something special, that was controller code for “are you requesting special VFR?” It was the controllers attempt to hand him an olive branch that he didn’t know to take. This is unfortunate very sad to hear – and thank you for your detailed write up about it.

    • This terminology correction (of the author’s correction) is spot on. “VFR =on= top” is an IFR clearance authorizing aircraft operating on an IFR flight plan, to fly at VFR altitudes while still maintaining their IFR flight plan. It is not something permitted to VFR flights.

      OTOH, VFR private pilots in the US are permitted to fly over a broken or overcast layer while maintaining VFR cloud clearances. This is “VFR =over= the top,” which is defined by the FAA (FAR 1.1) as “the operation of an aircraft over the top under VFR when it is not being operated on an IFR flight plan.”

  • As I read the sequence the thought that came to mind was “mental impermanent”. A undetected stroke or other medical condition might explain a pilot who had successfully flown for 50 yrs, (even if he was cavalier about the rules), but suddenly could not determine his location, headings, etc with an over reliance on the new GPS toy.
    He may even have been aware of his deteriorating condition which would explain is frequent desire to have a second pilot accompany him.

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