Traffic pattern operations are among the most workload-intensive phases of flight. Communicating and complying with ATC instructions, completing checklists, configuring the aircraft for landing, scanning for traffic—all of these tasks compete for a pilot’s attention in the pattern. Amid the hustle, it can be easy to forget that not all collision hazards have wings attached. Towers and other obstructions can rise many hundreds of feet into the air—placing them dangerously close to aircraft operating at or below traffic pattern altitudes. Throw sun glare and an incorrect altimeter setting into the mix, and tragedy looms tall.
On Dec. 19, 2004, a Cessna 182P collided with a radio transmission tower while on approach to Fullerton Municipal Airport in Fullerton, Calif. The force of impact severed one wing and crumpled the other, releasing fuel that erupted in a fireball 750 feet above the ground. The pilot and passenger were killed.
The Skylane had departed from El Monte Airport in El Monte, Calif. at 9:15 a.m. The pilot planned to land at Fullerton, pick up two additional passengers, and continue on to Catalina, Calif. Approximately 30 minutes after taking off from El Monte, the pilot contacted the Fullerton tower, reported his position northwest of the airport, and indicated he had the current ATIS information. The tower controller cleared the aircraft for a left base entry to Runway 6. When the Skylane was about three miles from the airport, ATC cleared the airplane to land.
Witnesses on the ground reported that the aircraft was flying a southeasterly heading, wings level, with the engine apparently running just prior to impact. A motorist on nearby Interstate 5 saw the airplane converging on the 760-foot-tall KFI-AM broadcast tower and said to a passenger in the vehicle, “If that plane does not make a radical turn, he’ll hit the—” A large explosion interrupted the sentence. According to the NTSB report, the aircraft struck the tower about 10 to 15 feet below the pinnacle and erupted into a fireball. The tower subsequently collapsed, with pieces of the flaming Skylane still entangled in the steel structure.
Motorists who witnessed the crash noted that sun glare was particularly strong that morning. Sky conditions were clear, visibility unlimited, and the winter sun was still fairly low (27 degrees above the horizon) in the southeast—the Skylane’s direction of flight at the moment of impact.
The NTSB also determined that the airplane’s altimeter had not been adjusted to the local setting. It was set to 30.23 inches Hg, consistent with the reported pressure at the departure airport. The Fullerton ATIS broadcast (which the pilot reported receiving) indicated an altimeter setting of 30.18 inches Hg. The difference of .05 inches Hg would have caused the instrument to display an altitude 50 feet higher than the aircraft was actually flying. With 50 more feet of altitude, the Skylane would have cleared the top of the tower.
NTSB examiners concluded that the probable cause of the accident was the pilot’s inadequate visual lookout and failure to maintain altitude/clearance from a transmission tower while on an extended base leg of the traffic pattern. A factor in the accident was the sun glare.
On the date of the accident, the current edition of the Airport/Facility Directory indicated that a tower reaching 819 feet msl was located two miles west-northwest of Fullerton airport. The obstruction also was depicted on the current Los Angeles VFR Terminal Area Chart with both msl and agl heights given. The traffic pattern altitude for Fullerton airport is 1,100 feet msl (1,004 feet agl).
In this age of GPS technology and glass-panel avionics, paper charts and the old green A/FD might seem like relics of a bygone era. But these resources still contain valuable information that might not be available from other sources. It’s critical that we understand the environment in which we’ll be flying—especially in the airport vicinity, where the aircraft is low and the distractions are many. Once we know exactly where and how tall the obstructions are, an accurate altimeter setting will help ensure we stay above them, even in the glare of the rising sun.
Pilots who spot towers or other obstructions that are not depicted on their charts should contact the FAA’s charting office by calling 800/626-3677 or via e-mail and request that the hazard be noted on future editions.
AOPA strongly opposed the reconstruction of the KFI transmission tower near Fullerton Municipal Airport following this accident, which was the second fatal accident involving the same tower. The association successfully lobbied to have the height of the proposed new tower reduced by nearly 100 feet and to require high-intensity flashing white lights during daylight hours. (The previous tower was unlit by day.) In March 2008, the partially reconstructed tower collapsed, likely due to construction-related factors.