Spring is a wonderful season for aerial sightseeing. However, a passenger's desire to "get a closer look" needs to be managed properly. The tragic accident that follows illustrates this point all too well.
In May 2003, the pilot of a Rockwell Commander and his three passengers were killed when they crashed in the Sierra Nevada. The Commander left South Lake Tahoe at about 1:40 p.m. local time, destined for Santa Ana, California. The weather was reported as clear with more than 10 miles of visibility and a temperature of 91 degrees Fahrenheit.
Before departure, the airplane was fueled with 35.2 gallons of fuel. The estimated weight of the Commander before departure was 3,175 pounds—35 pounds over the certified gross weight.
A digital camera belonging to one of the passengers was found intact in the debris. The images documented the flight path departing South Lake Tahoe, flying over the Half Dome area of Yosemite Valley, and then proceeding to the southeast at an altitude well below the surrounding mountains. The flight was headed in the direction of a lake that the pilot's wife had camped at as a child.
The wreckage was found on a plateau in the Sierra Nevada at an elevation of 12,660 feet. Surrounding terrain ranged in elevation from 4,900 feet to 12,795 feet. The density altitude at the accident site was calculated to be 15,000 feet.
The pilot held a private pilot certificate, had more than 1,500 hours of experience, and had flown at least 40 hours in the previous 90 days.
The NTSB determined the cause of the accident was the pilot's failure to maintain an adequate airspeed while maneuvering close to the ground over mountainous terrain in a high-density altitude environment, near the upper performance capabilities of the airplane. All these factors lead to an inadvertent stall and crash.
Taking friends and family on sightseeing trips is a wonderful way to share your hobby and expose them to general aviation. Unfortunately, sometimes the pressure to please can yield bad results. This flight had the pilot departing over gross weight in high terrain, with even higher density altitudes over the route of flight. The rising terrain exceeded the capabilities of the Commander, and four people died as a result.
For more information about the hazards when flying in mountainous terrain, take AOPA Air Safety Institute's Mountain Flying Online Course. You can also learn real-world strategies for making better decisions in the cockpit by taking our online course, Do the Right Thing—Decision Making for Pilots.
Accident reports can be found in ASI's accident database.
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