Flying in mountainous terrain can be challenging. So can flying at night or under a low ceiling. When all three are combined, heightened situational awareness is imperative.
On November 27, 2002, the pilot of a Piper Lance II and his passenger were killed when the Lance hit terrain while approaching their destination of Mercer County Airport in Bluefield, West Virginia.
The IFR flight departed Leesburg, Florida, at 2:15 p.m. EST. The pilot flew over a planned stop in Union, South Carolina, and at 5:47 p.m., asked for a course reversal to Ashe Country Airport in Jefferson, North Carolina, because he did not have any instrument approach procedure charts for West Virginia with him. The pilot then asked the controller, "How low can you get me on radar?" The controller responded, "We can get you down to 6,000 feet for Bluefield and it's uh VFR conditions up there." The pilot decided to proceed to Bluefield for a visual approach.
At 5:58 p.m., the pilot left the ATC frequency to check the weather information for Bluefield. Upon his return to the frequency, the pilot was asked for his altitude, and responded that he was at 6,100 feet. The controller said, "I'm showing you out of 5,100 and your assigned altitude was six." The controller asked the pilot to climb and maintain 5,800.
At 6:01 p.m., the pilot reported that he had visual contact with the ground and cancelled his IFR flight plan. Radar showed the aircraft heading 360 degrees at an altitude of 5,600 feet. The aircraft then climbed to 6,000 feet, descended to 5,800 feet, and made a gradual 360-degree descending left turn. The airplane leveled off at 4,700 briefly before radar contact was lost at 6:04 p.m.
The wreckage was located about 9 miles south of the Bluefield Airport at an elevation of 3,896 feet. The weather at Bluefield around the time of the accident included calm winds, 10 miles visibility, and a few clouds at 1,900 feet. A "special" METAR was issued at 6:12 p.m., which reported broken clouds at 1,900 feet.
The pilot had an instrument rating and a single-engine commercial certificate. According to his logbook, he had 2,358 hours of total flight experience, including 263 hours in actual instrument conditions and 103 hours of night experience. His last instrument flight was on July 15, 2002.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's failure to maintain an adequate altitude above terrain.
Pilots need to maintain situational awareness at all times, regardless of the type of flight being conducted. When doing your preflight planning, determine the minimum safe altitudes for your route of flight, and stick to them. If you find yourself getting boxed in because of weather, you'll know how low you can safely descend, and always remember, if you need help, ask!
For more information on flying in mountainous terrain, take AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Mountain Flying online course. To learn how your charts can help you maintain terrain clearance, read the foundation's Terrain Avoidance Plan.
Accident reports can be found in ASF's accident database.
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