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The arrival of spring not only brings nature back to life, but most airports as well. Beautiful weather contributes to the urge to just hop in the airplane and go, but before launching, pilots should still take the time to check the weather.
On April 20, 2005, the pilot of a Cessna 150 and his passenger departed Festus Memorial Airport in Festus, Missouri, for an afternoon jaunt over the local area. After takeoff, the pilot noticed dark clouds on the horizon and headed back to the airport. The Cessna crashed during the landing attempt. The pilot was killed and the passenger was seriously injured.
On the day of the accident, the pilot and passenger drove to the airport to look at the pilot's airplane. The pilot spent about 20 minutes walking around the Cessna and explaining it to the passenger before they decided to go for a short flight. They pulled the plane out of the hangar and the pilot did a preflight inspection, followed by a runup. The passenger remembers that there was no traffic and the weather was "sunny and nice, with a slight breeze."
After takeoff, the pilot turned toward the west, and they immediately saw dark clouds and turned back to the airport for a landing on Runway 18. The last thing the passenger remembers is flying toward the airport with rain hitting the windshield. Witnesses saw the Cessna returning to the airport and banking erratically while on approach. One saw the airplane "turn on its left side" and descend behind trees. The left wing hit first, 36 feet to the left of the runway.
Other pilots at the airport noted that the wind was "blowing really hard, the tree tops were bent over," and that "leaves and debris were blowing almost horizontally above the road."
The closest weather reporting station was located 25 nautical miles northwest of the accident site. A few minutes before the accident, the weather was reported as winds 130 degrees at 5 knots, visibility 10 statute miles, and few clouds at 4,200 feet with a broken layer at 7,000 feet. There was also mention of thunderstorms and rain in the area.
Thirty minutes after the accident, the weather included winds 280 degrees at 20 knots with gusts to 29 knots, visibility 1 mile with heavy rain and a 900-foot scattered layer.
A convective sigmet was active at the time of the accident and was issued for a severe line of thunderstorms moving east-southeast at 20 knots with cloud tops to 41,000 feet, wind gusts of 60 knots, and 1.5-inch diameter hail. Weather radar showed intense to extreme thunderstorms passing over the airport at the time of the accident.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's inadequate preflight weather evaluation and his failure to maintain aircraft control during the landing approach.
Festus Memorial Airport sits in a valley, with higher elevations to both the east and west. Because the pilot did not get a preflight weather briefing, he was unaware of the approaching thunderstorms. The temptation to get a "window briefing" for a local flight can be strong, but as pilots, we need to recognize that the weather can change quickly, and the best way to know what's coming is to get a preflight weather briefing.
To learn more about thunderstorms, take the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's WeatherWise: Thunderstorms and ATC online course.
Accident reports can be found in ASF's accident database.
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