Combine high density altitude with a heavily loaded airplane, and you have a recipe for disaster. A private pilot flying a Piper Cherokee learned this the hard way after taking off from Eagle, Colorado, on the morning of August 1, 2002. The pilot and one passenger were seriously injured, while two other passengers were killed.
Eagle Regional Airport is located at an elevation of 6,535 feet msl. The density altitude on this day was calculated to be 7,885 feet msl. According to the pilot, the airplane weighed 2,270 pounds at takeoff, 130 pounds below the maximum gross weight.
After an estimated 5,000-foot ground roll, the Cherokee departed Eagle and turned right towards rising terrain. After climbing for over 10 minutes, the pilot noticed that his climb rate was only 100-200 feet per minute. When the front seat passenger mentioned the slow climb rate, the pilot responded, "It would not be a problem because they would just continue toward the higher terrain and find some updrafts."
The Cherokee impacted terrain at an elevation of 10,050 feet. Density altitude at the accident site was calculated to be 12,226. The climb performance charts from the Piper Cherokee POH indicates the maximum climb rate at gross weight would be between 210-250 feet per minute at 12,000 feet density altitude.
According to FAA records, the pilot had accumulated 260 hours of total time, 50 of which were in the accident make and model. The pilot's mountain flying experience was not available.
The NTSB determined the cause of this accident to be the failure of the pilot to perform remedial action and maintain clearance with the rising terrain. Contributing factors were the pilot's poor planning/decision-making, the rising terrain, and the high density altitude.
This accident illustrates how a chain of events can lead to a grave outcome. Clearly, taking off fully loaded while at a high density altitude will result in poor climb performance. Opportunities existed for this pilot to change course, return to the airport, or not depart at all, all of which may have prevented this accident.
Flying in areas of rising terrain and high density altitude can prove challenging and requires additional training for all pilots unfamiliar with the mountain flying environment. For more information about mountain flying, see the following links from ASF.
This accident report as well as others can be found in ASF's Online Database.
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