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Every pilot has experienced get-home-itis. However, it is critical that pilots understand that the desire to get to a destination, or the self-induced pressure to avoid rescheduling an appointment, can overshadow good judgment. On June 9, 2003, a private pilot and his flight instructor left San Jose, California, for Castle Airport in Merced to meet an FAA examiner for the private pilot's commercial checkride. Midway through the flight, the Aero Commander 112TC they were flying hit terrain seven miles west of Santa Nella. The private pilot was killed and the CFI sustained severe burns from the post-crash fire.
According to the CFI, they departed San Jose around 8:30 a.m. and were following Highway 152 through Pacheco Pass. Overcast clouds in the area were at hilltop level in some places and above the hills in others. They had not filed a flight plan for the flight, but planned to file in the air if the visibility worsened.
Weather at Salinas (the closest reporting facility), 30 miles southwest of the accident site, included ceilings of 800 overcast with 10 miles of visibility. The departure airport reported overcast ceilings at 1,100 feet with seven miles of visibility. A resident living about one mile from the accident site saw ground fog with about 300 feet of visibility at the time of the accident.
The instrument-rated private pilot had more than 430 hours of experience, and the CFI had about 600 hours total time, with 296 hours of dual given.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's inadequate in-flight planning and decision-making by conducting VFR flight into IMC, and his failure to maintain terrain clearance in a mountainous environment.
We've all been there. The desire to complete a checkride and earn a new certificate can be consuming. Instead of rescheduling, this pilot chose to depart in less than ideal conditions, which led to a tragic outcome. Making the go/no-go decision for a flight based on current and forecast weather conditions is an integral task for any pilot, not to mention one who is about to take his commercial practical test.
When faced with situations like this, step back and realize that making it to your destination late but alive is better than not at all. To learn more about making good decisions, read the AOPA Air Safety Institute's Safety Advisor Do the Right Thing: Decision Making for Pilots. You can also find the Mountain Flying Safety Advisor online.
Accident reports can be found in ASI's accident database.
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