Three Strikes and You're Out

DEN01FA070

ASIOver-estimating flying abilities, particularly when continuing VFR into instrument weather conditions, often proves fatal. On March 12, 2001, a non-instrument rated private pilot and his three passengers died when their Beech A36, N1080A, crashed while approaching Jackson Hole, Wyoming (JAC).

The pilot's preflight weather briefing included a forecast for Jackson Hole of scattered clouds at 3,000 feet, broken clouds at 4,500 feet, and occasional light snow. The forecast for later that day added the possibility of gusty winds.

Actual Jackson Hole weather at the time of the accident showed visibility 7 miles, a few clouds at 2,200 feet, broken clouds at 2,800 feet, overcast clouds at 3,400 feet, temperature minus 1 degree and dew point minus 6 degrees. With a JAC field elevation of 6,445 feet msl, that report would place cloud bases between 8,645 and 9,845 feet MSL. Verifying that observation, a Citation in the area reported moderate rime/mixed icing in the clouds from 12,000 feet MSL down to 8,000 feet MSL.

The A36 pilot departed Garden City, Kansas for JAC at 9:00 am central time. At 10:29 MST the pilot checked in with Salt Lake Air Route Traffic Control Center (SLC ARTCC), level at 12,500 feet.

At 11:26, the SLC ARTCC controller stated to the JAC tower controller: "And, I'll pass this one, this guy's visual flight rules (VFR), and he said, supposedly going to Jackson. I don't know how he's gonna do that if those other guys shoot the ILS, but, maybe he'll change his plan, he's VFR for now I should say." At 11:27, the SLC controller provided the A36 pilot with a JAC weather observation less than 15 minutes old; it included a visibility of seven miles, a few clouds at two thousand one hundred, scattered clouds at three thousand and a ceiling of three thousand four hundred broken.

At 11:29, the pilot told SLC ARTCC he would be descending to 10,500, prompting the controller to ask if the pilot was familiar with the high terrain in the area. The pilot replied, "No, I'm not," so the controller advised him that "�you're right on the boundary between an area on your left, which is the minimum IFR altitude's (MIA) one zero thousand, on your right side the minimum IFR altitude is one three thousand six hundred. However, you are approaching an area southeast of Jackson, where the minimum IFR altitude would be one four thousand, due to the high terrain."

The pilot replied, "Okay, it looks like there's a valley down through there though, eight zero alpha." The controller responded, "November eight zero alpha, roger, maintain VFR. Off to the left of your position, there's a little bit lower MIA's, south and southwest of Jackson. MIA's are one two thousand, and as you get to about eleven miles south of Jackson, it goes up to one two thousand niner hundred."

Between 11:36 and 11:41, the pilot turned toward the south and descended to 10,800 feet. Because of the mountains, a Northwest Airlines flight provided radio relay for Salt Lake Center. Through that relay, the A36 pilot was told by Center to squawk VFR and contact Jackson tower when he got closer.

The last ATC radar return showed the airplane 48 miles southeast of Jackson Hole, at an altitude of 10,800 feet. The wreckage was located 16 miles southeast of Jackson Hole at an elevation of 10,400 feet.

According to FAA records, the pilot had 445 hours, 44 of which were in the Beech A36. His pilot certificate was issued in June of 1999.

The NTSB determined the cause of this accident to be the pilot's continued VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in an inflight collision with terrain during cruise flight. Factors were the pilot's inadequate preflight planning in failing to familiarize himself with the terrain conditions, the mountain obscuration due to clouds, and the pilot's lack of instrument flight time.

Of all the mistakes pilots make, continuing VFR into instrument weather conditions - particularly in unfamiliar mountainous areas - is one of the most dangerous. This pilot had numerous factors stacked against him. He was not familiar with the terrain in and around Jackson Hole, although the controller attempted to warn him. He was inexperienced both in total time and in aircraft type. The weather was not flyable for his proposed operation with a low overcast and reported moderate icing. The decision-making process was highly flawed.

For further reference, please read Bruce Landsberg's article on Drilling Hills.

This accident report as well as others can be found in ASI's Online Database.