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Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight

A scenic flight gone wrong

Spring is a wonderful season for aerial sightseeing, but beware of a passenger's desire to "get a closer look." A tragic accident that took place in May 2003 illustrates this point all too well.

The pilot of a Rockwell Commander and his three passengers were killed when they hit terrain in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Commander left South Lake Tahoe, California, at about 1:40 p.m. local time destined for Santa Ana, California. The weather was reported as clear with more than 10 miles' visibility and a temperature of 91 degrees Fahrenheit. Before departure, the airplane was fueled with 35.2 gallons of fuel. The Commander's estimated weight before departure was 3,175 pounds--35 pounds over the certificated gross weight.

A digital camera belonging to one of the passengers was found intact in the wreckage. The images document the flight path departing South Lake Tahoe, flying over the Half Dome area of Yosemite Valley and then proceeding to the southeast at an altitude well below the surrounding mountains.

The wreckage was found on a plateau in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at an elevation of 12,660 feet. Surrounding terrain ranged in elevation from 4,900 feet to 12,795 feet. The density altitude at the site was calculated to be 15,000 feet. The private pilot had more than 1,500 hours of experience and had flown at least 40 hours in the previous 90 days. The NTSB determined the cause of this accident to be the pilot's failure to maintain an adequate airspeed while maneuvering close to the ground over mountainous terrain in a high-density-altitude environment, near the upper performance capabilities of the airplane. These factors led to an inadvertent stall and impact with terrain.

Taking friends and family on sightseeing trips is a wonderful way to share your passion for flight Unfortunately, sometimes the pressure to please can yield bad results. This flight involved a pilot departing over gross weight in high terrain, with even higher density altitudes along the route of flight. The rising terrain exceeded the capabilities of the Commander.

Learn real-world strategies for making better decisions in the cockpit by reading the Do the Right Thing: Decision Making for Pilots Safety Advisor. For more information about the hazards of flying in mountainous terrain, take ASF's Mountain Flying Online Course.

Kristen Hummel manages the GA accident 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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