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Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight

Three strikes and you're out

Overestimating flying abilities, particularly when continuing VFR into instrument weather conditions, often proves fatal. On March 12, 2001, a noninstrument-rated private pilot and his three passengers died when their Beech A36 Bonanza crashed while approaching Jackson, Wyoming.

Jackson Hole Airport weather at the time of the accident showed visibility seven miles, a few clouds at 2,200 feet, broken clouds at 2,800 feet, overcast at 3,400 feet, temperature minus 1 degree, and dew point minus 6 degrees. The airport elevation of 6,445 feet msl put cloud bases between 8,645 and 9,845 feet msl. Verifying that observation, a Cessna Citation in the area reported moderate rime/mixed icing in the clouds from 12,000 to 8,000 feet msl.

The Bonanza pilot departed Garden City, Kansas, for Jackson Hole at 9 a.m. central time. At 10:29 Mountain Standard Time the pilot checked in with the Salt Lake Air Route Traffic Control Center, level at 12,500 feet.

At 11:26, the Salt Lake Center controller stated to the Jackson Hole tower controller: "And, I'll pass this one, this guy's visual flight rules, 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...." At 11:27, the Center controller provided the Bonanza pilot with a Jackson Hole weather observation less than 15 minutes old; it included a visibility of seven miles, a few clouds at 2,100, scattered clouds at 3,000, and a ceiling of 3,400 broken.

At 11:29, the pilot told Center 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, where the minimum IFR altitude [MIA] is 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, "OK, 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 MIAs, south and southwest of Jackson. MIAs are one two thousand, and as you get to about 11 miles south of Jackson, it goes up to one two thousand niner hundred."

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.

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

Of all the mistakes a pilot can 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: his lack of experience in the local terrain, his lack of weather experience, and his lack of overall flight experience. Although the weather was legally VFR at the destination, given the conditions this should have been an IFR flight.

Kristen Hummel manages the aviation safety database for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. She holds a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings.

By Kristen Hummel

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