Fatal accident recalls airspace-design concerns

December 1, 2011

The National Transportation Safety Board has released its preliminary report on a Thanksgiving-eve accident that claimed six lives near Phoenix, Ariz. Published reports said the NTSB planned to examine whether changes made to Phoenix’s Class B airspace in 2007—and challenged in court by AOPA as unsafe—contributed to the crash.

On Nov, 23, all six occupants, including three children, died when a twin-engine Rockwell Aero Commander 690 struck a mountain shortly after departure from Falcon Field, in Mesa, Ariz. The flight was reported bound for Safford Regional Airport, 111 nautical miles to the southeast.

The report said the aircraft was flying level at 4,500 feet and tracking “in an essentially straight line” when it struck a peak in the Superstition Mountains just east of a Class B airspace segment with a floor of 5,000 feet and a ceiling of 9,000 feet.

“The impact site was located on steep rocky terrain, at an elevation of about 4,650 feet, approximately 150 feet below the top of the local peak,” said the report.

The Arizona Republic reported Nov. 28 that, with local pilots reiterating long-standing concerns about a dangerous combination of a low Class B airspace floor and high terrain east of Phoenix, the NTSB planned to examine any possible causal relationship.

In 2006 and 2007, AOPA expressed concerns to the FAA about the proposed reconfiguration of the Phoenix Class B airspace, a plan driven in part by air traffic control concerns about separation of arrivals at Sky Harbor Airport from traffic in an adjacent VFR flyway. AOPA presented an alternative plan that was rejected by the FAA.

“While AOPA does support the FAA's intent of lowering the ceiling of the Class B airspace from 10,000 to 9,000 feet, AOPA is concerned about control issues regarding Falcon Field's Class D airspace. And lowering part of the floor east of Phoenix would compress traffic over noise-sensitive areas or force pilots to climb over higher terrain,” said Heidi Williams, AOPA senior director of airspace and modernization in a Feb. 13, 2007, statement. She added, "We need to be good neighbors, but we also need to ensure safety.”

The airspace redesign went into effect in October 2007. AOPA appealed the redesign and argued its position before the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2008, but the plan remained in effect.

As early in the airspace redesign as 2006, AOPA had specifically noted the hazards associated with pilots having to fly only 500 to 1,000 feet above the Superstition Mountains under the FAA’s plan.

“You don’t want to have a prediction like that come true,” said James Timm, executive director of the Arizona Pilots Association.

Timm, in a Dec. 1 interview, said he hoped that any mention of the airspace configuration by the NTSB would lead to an early re-examination of the airspace sector’s layout. He said he hoped that the FAA “will listen a little closer to what the GA community is saying” about an airspace design that had persisted as “a considerable concern” to area GA pilots.

Newspaper reports said services were planned Dec. 9, for Morgan Perry, 9, Logan Perry, 8, and Luke Perry, 6, who were lost in the crash with their father, Shawn Perry, 39; Joseph Hardwick, 22; and Russell Hardy, 31, who the NTSB said was believed to be the pilot.

Hardy’s company, Ponderosa Aviation, had recently acquired the twin Commander aircraft, according to the company’s website. The NTSB report described Shawn Perry as a co-owner of the company.