More than meets the eye

By David Jack Kenny

Even when the cause of an aircraft accident seems straightforward, the reasons it happened can be difficult to untangle. That’s especially true of fatal accidents where the pilots can no longer explain their thinking. Leaving aside one or two deliberate suicides each year, they presumably had every intention of living to fly another day. What led them to put themselves and their aircraft at risk?

Shortly after 6 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2012, a Cessna 320 Skyknight took off from Runway 17 of the San Marcos, Texas, Municipal Airport. Conditions were not only dark—it was an hour and three quarters before dawn, and civil twilight wouldn’t begin for another seventy-five minutes—but foggy, with visibility decreasing from 2 ½ miles under a 400-foot overcast. The solo 66-year-old private pilot was not instrument-rated, and sure enough, the turbocharged twin crashed just after takeoff, killing him. The accident site was barely a mile from the departure end of the runway.

The NTSB concluded that the accident resulted from the VFR-only pilot’s decision to take off “in night instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in spatial disorientation and a loss of control.” No surprise there—but why on earth did a competent, sane, and apparently contented man ever try such a thing?

The Skyknight had spent the past eight months in a shop at San Marcos having its exterior painted and interior refurbished. The owner had arrived to pick it up on the afternoon of Oct. 30. As he inspected the work, he was advised that a run-up had been done two days earlier; the left engine was very rough and wouldn’t idle. In a second run-up the next day, the left engine seemed better but still wouldn’t idle below 900 rpm. The owner replied that he “knew the engine was not running properly” but expected it to smooth out after it had been operated for a while, and recalled that a similar problem with the right engine had been traced to a bad diaphragm in the fuel-injection spider. He told the shop manager that he’d have the left engine looked at after he got home to North Dakota—a distance of more than 1,000 nautical miles.

The twin Cessna was a relatively new acquisition. The pilot and his wife had found it in Oklahoma, where it had apparently sat largely inactive for about 10 years. It took mechanics from two different facilities to get it running well enough to be flown, and it would seem that it was still essentially in its original 1967 condition, right down to the 360-channel radios. He told the co-owner of the San Marcos shop that he planned to have the panel and radios upgraded next. The shop’s A&P recalled that “the King radios were so [old] that the plastic shield that is in front on the digital display was deformed and falling off the radio.” The transponder was placarded inoperative.

San Marcos is outside Austin’s Class C airspace, so a transponder isn’t required for a VFR departure. However, both ground control (120.125) and tower (126.825) use frequencies the Skyknight’s radios couldn’t tune. In a conversation with the shop owners the day before, the pilot explained that he planned to take off before the tower opened “due to his inability to contact [them].” He also assured them that “leaving in bad weather was not an option” and lamented “the bad judgment used by pilots who were in a hurry to get home.” The instructor who’d given him his multiengine training told investigators that he was "very careful at all times … [and] never exhibited any hazardous attitudes during training.”

Though legal in VMC, taking off before dawn on a thousand-mile trip in a twin with its critical engine running poorly, no transponder, and radios unable to tune in half the frequencies now in use suggests a fairly relaxed approach to flight planning. That seems to have extended to other details as well. The shop owners recalled that the previous day he said he’d checked the weather and “believed it would be good flying conditions,” but there is no record that he actually got a weather briefing the morning of the accident—and San Marcos’ AWOS frequency is 120.825, another channel his radios couldn’t get. Is it possible he took off expecting to climb through a little ground fog into clear skies, only to find himself in the clouds instead?

In most respects, this was the kind of person general aviation could use more of. He was an Air Force veteran and a successful inventor whose patented transport cradle for large agricultural sprayers won admiration—and customers—on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. Neighbors credit him with almost single-handedly keeping his rural home airport open, even spending substantial amounts of his own money on emergency paving and other repairs. It’s tragic to think that something as simple as a handheld radio—or merely waiting until it was light enough to see the sky—might have saved him from trying to take off on a morning he should have stayed on the ground.