Pilot in Piper Warrior II Arrested by Highway Patrol
On the 15th of July 2022, an officer of the Missouri State Highway Patrol arrested a man for driving while intoxicated on the westbound Interstate 70 at 3 in the morning.
This is relevant to us because the man was “driving” a single-engine aircraft, a Piper Warrior II. The Piper Warrior was a popular successor to the Cherokee with longer tapered wings; the Warrior II had more horsepower and improved wheel-fairing aerodynamics.
These improvements did very little to increase its performance on the asphalt concrete of the interstate highway.
The flight was planned from Walker County Airport in Jasper, Alabama to Grain Valley, Missouri, a suburb of Kansas City.
Later, the pilot reported that there were 45 gallons of fuel on board, which, under optimal circumstances, would allow for about five hours of flight in a brand-new aircraft. Usually, a pilot would plan a flight with about an hour’s worth of fuel as a buffer. For normal planning, taking into account the fuel used during start-up, taxi and landing, I would estimate that 45 gallons of fuel would allow for about three hours and thirty minutes of flight.
Now, that’s a messy back-of-the-matchbook calculation, which does not factor in wind and presumes that the pilot is correctly leaning the engine and not wasting any additional fuel in the climb or by leaving the power setting too high.
Realistically, flying at about 100 knots with bit of a tailwind, you could maybe just about manage 500 nautical miles distance on 45 gallons of fuel, if you used up all of your buffer and left no opportunity for diversion, in a new plane, if everything went perfectly.
The Piper Warrior II received its airworthiness certificate in 2003, twenty years before the flight. The as-the-crow-flies distance from Walker County Airport to 3GV Airport in Grain Valley is 470 nautical miles.
It was 22:10 when the pilot departed Walker County. It was a dark night but the wind was calm and the visibility was good. He asked air traffic control for “VFR Flight Following” service, which meant that the controllers would monitor the flight on radar and offer traffic advisories.
The flight was uneventful until about 40 miles east of Kansas City when the pilot realised that he did not have enough fuel to make it to his destination. He contacted ATC, who responded helpfully with headings to the closest airport for an emergency landing. The pilot did not follow the headings but continued on. The controller then asked the pilot to change to the approach frequency, where he would receive better instructions in order to get him onto the ground safely.
He did not get to the ground safely.
At 02:42, that is, four and a half hours after the pilot had departed Walker County Airport, a highway patrol officer was notified that an aircraft had crashlanded on Interstate 70, completely blocking the westbound lands.
The officer arrived within ten minutes to see badly damaged aircraft perpendicular to the roadway, with the nose against the guard rail. Two police officers from Grain Valley Police Department and an ambulance were already on the scene.
He approached the pilot, who was being treated for his injuries at the ambulance.
The pilot explained that he had departed from Ocala, Florida, flying to Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport when he had an emergency.
Ocala, Florida does not have an airport but is served by Orlando International Airport. Ocala DOES have an airport, see the comments below.
Walker County Airport in Alabama, where the pilot actually departed from, is about 500 miles (800 km) north of Ocala.
“I told the tower I was winchester on fuel,” he said.
The highway patrol officer asked him to explain what that meant.
“Winchester on fuel, out of fuel. I ran out of gas.”
The Shack Tactical Wiki, a website serving the ShackTac veteran gaming community, explains that winchester is a military aviation code-word to signify that an aircraft is out of ammo.
A Pilot can declare on the Radio that he is “Winchester” or “Winchester on <ammo/weapon>”, letting listeners know that he will not be able to use that weapon until he gets the chance to RTB [return to base] and rearm.
The usage is compared to the term bingo, which a military pilot may use to explain that they are out of fuel and need to return to base.
Pilots may instead decide to stay over the battlefield, knowing they won’t be able to make it back to base before the engine sputters out, but hoping to make a difference on the battlefield before they inevitably crash. This is extremely rare in ShackTac.
ShackTac refers to players who take part in multi-player military simulator games.
It’s true that the term is legitimately used in military aviation and referenced in the context of US Navy SEALs. This means our unlucky pilot was either an avid military-sim player with a poor attention to detail or a member of an elite special operations force who momentarily got confused as to whether he needed ammunition or fuel to complete his mission to fly home.
It’s possible that the controller at the tower understood what the hell the pilot was talking about and that he was out of fuel, not ammunition, but I suspect they also did not have a clue. Certainly, the highway patrol officer didn’t.
The pilot kept talking, saying that he was the only occupant of the plane, which, he added, was privately owned and empty. Of both passengers and fuel, although he didn’t specify which he meant.
The officer considered that the pilot might be intoxicated. He left him to the emergency services for evaluation while he took a look at the crash site.
An articulated lorry (US: tractor-trailer or semi) was blocking the roadway. It had been heading west to Colorado when the driver noticed the aircraft flying low above her. “He just kept going lower and kept going lower and I’m going WTF. And then the next thing I know, I go holy crap! And he hit the interstate.”
The plane crashed directly in front of her. She stopped her vehicle to block the crash site from further traffic. Then she ran to the wreckage while shouting at her husband, who was also in the lorry, to call emergency services.
She offered the officer the dash-cam footage from her lorry and added that she’d put the pilot’s personal belongings in the cab of her truck. She thought that the police might want them, she said, as the pilot seemed to be a little tipsy.
This is the view from her dashcam:
She handed over a blue backpack and the officer asked her how the pilot had seemed after exiting the aircraft. “Drunk,” she said.
She later described him to the local press. “His words were slurring, you coiuld smell the alcohol on him. He gave me a hug and thanked me for blocking traffic and saying that he was glad he didn’t hit nobody.”
Back at the ambulance, a medic reported that the pilot had requested to be transported for medical care. The medic confirmed that the pilot smelled of liquor and was acting intoxicated. However, when asked, the pilot denied consuming alcohol or using drugs and, according to the highway patrol officer, refused any on-site sobriety tests.
He decided that test or no test: the man was drunk. He arrested the pilot at 02:59 on charges of driving while intoxicated and operating an aircraft while intoxicated.
The pilot then volunteered to go with the officer, who explained that he was to be transported for medical treatment first, as he had requested.
The pilot said no, he would just go with the highway patrol officer.
The officer asked him for identification and the pilot claimed he did not have any. How, wondered the officer, did he get in and out of airports without any form of identification? The pilot, irritated, said he didn’t need ID because they were private airports.
The officer then searched the pilot and found a Kansas State driver’s licence and a container of marijuana.
At that point, unprompted, the pilot volunteered new information. “My Glock is in the airplane.” A Glock is a type of semi-automatic pistol.
The arrest records ended up with a long list of charges: Driving While Under the Influence, Careless and Imprudent Driving Involving a Crash, Felony Possession of a Controlled Substance, Felony Unlawful Possession of a Firearm, Possession of Marijuana (less than 10 grams) and Unlawful Possession of Drug Paraphernalia.
The Piper Warrior II was towed out of the way, and all lanes of the highway were open again by five thirty that morning.
After the accident, the pilot was asked to fill in the NTSB Form 6120.1, an pilot/operator aircraft accident report. Under
Pilot Certificate(s) (Check all that apply) there is one faint tick mark, under student.
After that, everything is marked with N/A for not applicable or None.
His student pilot certificate was issued in January of 2020. There is not much of an obstacle to getting that certificate if you can pass the medical; however, you should only be flying under the supervision of an instructor, who would obviously never have let him depart on a flight without enough fuel to finish it.
The gentleman, I hesitate to continue calling him a pilot, claimed 290 hours flight time, 235 of which were on this aircraft make and model, which is particularly impressive for a student pilot. For the section titled “Narrative History of Flight,” he simply wrote: “Under advisement of council (sic), I decline to answer at this time.”
Under Recommendation (How Could this accident/incident been prevented?) the student pilot shifted to all caps: DECLINE TO ANSWER UNDER ADVISEMENT OF COUNCIL.
The student pilot is contesting the revocation of his driver’s license.
The NTSB have closed their case as the details of the emergency landing are clear.
Law enforcement reported the airplane overflew a tractor-trailer, landed on the interstate roadway, and impacted a guardrail. The airplane sustained substantial damage to the left wing. The student pilot reported to law enforcement that the airplane ran out of fuel. While on-scene at the accident location, the pilot was arrested for driving while intoxicated and operating an aircraft while intoxicated. The pilot refused to provide a statement of the accident.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
The loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion.
Personnel issues: Fuel planning – Pilot Aircraft: Fuel – Fluid level Personnel issues: Alcohol – Pilot
The FAA, on the other hand, are going to have a field day with this. They have confirmed that they are investigating separately.