Perhaps the most baffling of all aviation accidents are the ones in which a skilled pilot flies a highly capable aircraft into a hillside. To date, we know little about why a Commander 690A turboprop flew straight and level into an Arizona mountain on Nov. 23, but that hasn’t stopped other pilots from speculating. Some have pointed out similarities between that accident and one in Puerto Rico in 2008, in which an almost identical airplane (a model 690B) crashed into a hill after entering clouds during a VFR descent into San Juan. Both pilots were professionals whose familiarity with the terrain didn’t save them from hitting it at altitudes below 5,000 feet. Regulations required both aircraft to be equipped with terrain awareness warning systems, though it’s not known whether they were operational at the time. Both accidents killed everyone on board, but may have been avoided had the pilots merely chosen to get instrument clearances.
Both also have eerie similarities to the accident that destroyed a piston-engine Commander 680FL on the morning of Dec. 20, 2010. The flight was a short hop from Palm Springs to Chino, Calif., a distance of 63 nautical miles. The solo pilot was a 33,000-hour air transport pilot, type-rated in no fewer than seven different transport-category aircraft, who also held a multiengine and instrument instructor’s certificate. He had passed a flight review and instrument proficiency check less than a month earlier and a second-class medical exam three months before that. He died when his airplane hit a hilltop at an elevation of just more than 2,500 feet msl.
The day before, he had flown the Commander into Palm Springs from Casa Grande, Texas, with several family members on board. He had originally planned to go on to Chino, where the airplane was based, but diverted to Palm Springs because of weather. He rented a car and drove home, and then left early the next morning to return the car and bring the airplane back. He did not get a weather briefing or file a flight plan, but he did ask the FBO in Palm Springs to “Hold the car for me. If I can’t get through, I may be back.”
The weather at Palm Springs was good enough to allow him to depart VFR, but the FBO employee recalled that Banning Pass “looked really dark.” The pass provides a corridor between peaks rising to almost 9,000 feet; the Banning airport on its floor sits at 2,219 feet. Investigators were able to superimpose recorded images from weather radar on the track data recovered from the pilot’s handheld GPS. It showed that he had initially followed Interstate 10 through the pass at altitudes from 2,500 to 3,400 feet msl. Later they learned that a retired military air traffic controller had seen him flying “in and out of the clouds” at no more than 700 feet agl and called the FAA to report this apparent violation of visual flight rules.
Four minutes after the pilot contacted approach control at March Air Reserve Base to request advisories through its Class C airspace, he turned southwest to avoid an area of moderate to heavy rain. His new course took him over a ridgeline and directly toward two small peaks that rise about a thousand feet above the valley floor. He cleared the first by less than 50 feet before climbing slightly and making another call to March Approach Control. This time he reported “having difficulty maintaining VFR” and requested an instrument clearance. The impact occurred one minute later, scattering fragments of the airplane for 500 feet. When California park rangers found it that afternoon, conditions at the site included heavy rain, 30-mph wind gusts, and visibility as low as 50 to 100 yards.
Why would an expert pilot in a cabin-class twin take the chance of scud-running instead of flying by instruments? There’s no question that he was both current and proficient. It’s possible that the airplane’s IFR certification had expired, but given the trip it had just made, this seems unlikely. Even with everything in perfect working order, though, an instrument flight might have been ill-advised. That day’s surface temperatures suggest that the freezing level was probably around 7,000 feet msl—but every reasonably direct route between Palm Springs and Chino involves minimum en route altitudes of at least 11,000 feet. Known-ice protection was not standard on the Commander 680FL, and photographs of the wreckage suggest that this particular one didn’t have it. (The official report doesn’t specify.) No matter how good you are, there are flights you just can’t make.
At Palm Springs, visibility was 10 miles under a 4,500-foot overcast. With the risk of ice ruling out an instrument flight, slipping through the pass VFR would seem like a reasonable prospect. But “taking a look” implies the willingness to change your mind depending on what you see, even when you’re almost there. The pilot was just about through the pass and over lower ground by the time he turned to avoid the storm. The hill he hit was the last one between his airplane and home—but then, it only takes one.