Flying low: Scenic route takes tragic turn

CEN11LA569

By David Jack Kenny

Most of us can name a few. There’s the buzz job, the flight below a canyon’s ridgelines, and the attempt to skim over a mountainside that some have called “granite surfing”—maneuvers that put aircraft, pilots, and passengers in close proximity to lethal obstacles with little margin for error. Then, of course, there’s the low-altitude river run.

They share one feature besides increased risk: That extra risk serves no useful purpose. Whether they’re novices or experienced enough to know better, the pilots who try these stunts are willing to chance destroying their aircraft and killing their passengers.

On Aug. 13, 2011, a restored Fairchild PT-19 flew into the Boone, Iowa, Municipal Airport to help celebrate Military Appreciation Day. The airplane, a two-seat U.S. Army primary trainer built in 1943, was on loan to the Iowa Aviation Heritage Museum, which had carried out the restoration. The pilot flying it was not its owner, but a museum volunteer who’d had a long and distinguished aviation career. After giving “numerous” rides to other attendees, he took off about noon to return to the museum. A member of the museum’s board rode along in the back. According to an FAA inspector who assisted with the investigation, “The pilot reportedly informed several fly-in attendees that they would be returning … via flight down the Des Moines River.”

A group out boating on the river saw the Fairchild fly by at such a low altitude that they could see both of its occupants were men; one later estimated it as 50 to 100 feet above the water. There was no sign of distress; the pilot rocked the wings to wave to them as he flew by. A few minutes later, a fisherman saw the airplane begin to descend from an initial altitude of perhaps 500 feet and rock its wings—then hit power lines suspended about 200 feet above the river. The left wing and left main gear hit a static line and the airplane tumbled end-over-end three times before crashing nose-first into a sandbar and flipping inverted. Both men on board were killed. The accident site was just about halfway through the planned 27-nautical-mile route.

The 67-year-old pilot probably understood the risks of low-level flight better than most—and had better reason to assume he could handle them. He was a retired Air Force pilot who had qualified in the F-100 Super Sabre, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and A-7 Corsair II ground-attack airplane, logging a combined 3,700 hours in those models. He also had about 3,300 hours of civilian flight time and held type ratings for the King Air 300 and the Beech 1900 and Swearingen SA-227 regional airliners. He had received numerous commendations, reached the rank of brigadier general, and served as chief of staff of the Iowa Air National Guard. In civilian life, he had worked for the FAA as an accident prevention specialist, operations inspector, operations supervisor, and eventually manager of the Des Moines flight standards district office before retiring in 2004.

It’s a fair guess that in his official capacity at the FAA, he would have counseled against making that same low-altitude river run. Human nature being what it is, it’s not unusual for experts to feel that they don’t require quite as much protection as standard practices provide for the less accomplished, and his choice of route for the accident flight wasn’t the only evidence of susceptibility to that kind of thinking. He had received a second class medical certificate not quite a year before the accident; his application reported no medical or psychiatric conditions since a childhood tonsillectomy and listed no current medications. Personal medical records kept by his private physician, however, showed that since 2006 he had been treated for four separate conditions and used one prescription drug that would each have required evaluation for a special issuance medical. A second pharmaceutical detected in the post-mortem toxicology screen would have been flatly disqualifying. However, the NTSB concluded that there was no evidence that either his medical conditions or the prescriptions used to treat them played any direct role in causing this tragedy.

Most aircraft accidents could be avoided, and this was more avoidable than most. The representative of the museum who completed the Pilot/Operator Aviation Accident/Incident Report summarized it perfectly: “If the pilot had flown directly back … as instructed instead of flying the scenic route as he called it and not have dropped down low over the Des Moines River as reported by observers this senseless accident wouldn’t have happened and I wouldn’t have lost two friends!”