Incomplete weather data, poor planning can be deadly

DEN05FA011

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AOPA Air Safety Foundation

Saving time is a great benefit of general aviation. A four-hour trip to the beach by car can be cut to one hour, a six-hour drive to a ski resort can be made in 90 minutes, or a three-hour business trip on the highways can be cut to less than an hour. As pilots, we become so accustomed to saving time in an airplane that it is easy to take this for granted. Do enough cross-country flying, though, and you will soon realize that weather can dictate your schedule with alarming regularity.

On October 13, 2004, a 4,300-hour ATP was scheduled to be in Aspen, Colorado, by 8:30 a.m. to report for duty on a corporate flying assignment. He left Englewood, Colorado, by car with ample time to reach his destination. But car trouble forced him to return to Englewood where he decided to fly himself instead in a Cessna 182. At 5 a.m. he obtained a weather briefing from the Denver FSS. Declining both full and adverse weather briefings, he only inquired about the cloud tops along his route of flight. At 6:30 a.m., he telephoned a business associate in Aspen and advised him of the situation. Thirty minutes later he phoned again and advised that he would be departing and "was going to fly north to go around the weather."

The weather at the departure airport was MVFR with ceilings at 2,600 feet and visibility 10 miles. At Aspen, his destination, conditions were better with ceilings at 3,200 feet agl and visibility 9 miles. Given just these two METARs, the only two the pilot had, it is easy to see how one could decide to initiate a VFR flight. However, unknown to the pilot was a weather report from a station along his route reporting visibility at 1 mile and low MVFR conditions. While departure and destination stations in mountainous terrain may show flyable VFR weather, dangers lurk along the way where high terrain can remain unseen to the unsuspecting pilot attempting to remain VFR.

Around 7:30 a.m., a witness near Idaho Springs, Colorado, heard a low flying airplane, describing it as "200 to 300 feet above the ground, flying in a southeasterly direction." He was unable to see the airplane due to poor visibility, low clouds, and fog. He estimated the visibility at less than 100 feet and noted that it had just stopped snowing.

The airplane was reported missing that afternoon when failing to arrive at Aspen. The next day, a surveyor came upon the wreckage in rising, wooded terrain at 9,386 feet msl. The Cessna 182 was destroyed and the pilot was fatally injured. The NTSB report cited the accident cause as "[t]he pilot's failure to maintain clearance from terrain, and his inadequate planning and decision making resulting in VFR flight into IMC. Contributing factors include the pilot's self-induced pressure to arrive at his destination, the low ceiling and the fog."

Sound aeronautical decision making is mandatory regardless of the pressures placed upon us. It is easy to be influenced by situations in our path that tempt us to set aside good judgment. When faced with these pressures, we must deliberately slow down and eliminate this self-imposed stress. Transportation for an important business, social or personal commitment, should always have a "Plan B."

While we all appreciate and enjoy the convenience and utility of general aviation, there are times when a "no-go" decision is the safest way out. There are no appointments so pressing that risking life, property damage, or health is ever appropriate.


Accident reports can be found in ASI's accident database.