Cutting through the Cascade Mountain Range, the Columbia River flows westward from the arid hills of eastern Washington. As it nears the Cascade Crest, it forms the border between Oregon and Washington State. Just as Indians and early settlers used it for transportation, it has become a popular route for pilots wishing to transit the formidable Cascade Mountains in VFR conditions. It provides an easily navigable alternative to problematic mountain pass crossings, which are often obscured for weeks at a time.
On the evening of January 20, 2005, a Cirrus SR22 piloted by an experienced flight instructor hit Viento Ridge in level flight at 2,150 feet, just 5 miles short of Hood River, Oregon. All aboard were killed on impact.
The pilot and his two passengers had departed Hood River that morning for a business trip to Salem, Oregon. The FBO manager at Salem said that the pilot spent most of the day at the FBO waiting for the Cirrus owner to finish his business. During this time, he checked the weather repeatedly. The pilot told him about how he had avoided weather by scud running into the Hood River airport (Ken Jernstedt Airfield) on several occasions. But the FBO manager advised the pilot not to fly into Hood River airport that night because of deteriorating weather.
The Cirrus departed Salem, 70 miles southwest of the accident site, at 7:51 p.m. A pilot said "the weather was poor on the night of the accident and there was a lot of heavy fog in the vicinity of the Hood River airport and the surrounding area." Several other pilots described the weather at the airport as IMC.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident to be the pilot's failure to maintain terrain clearance.
While the Columbia River Gorge often has VFR conditions, the surrounding terrain rises sharply from the riverbanks - in places, the walls of the gorge tower nearly a mile above the river. It is no place for pilots to stray from the intended course, particularly in dark conditions with marginal VFR or IMC weather.
The pilot's admission of previously scud running up and down the gorge is telling. His previous successes probably bolstered his confidence. While the moving map display in a Cirrus aircraft presents an excellent picture of the route of flight, the picture out the window is far more important, particularly when hostile terrain lurks just off the wingtips.
To learn about avoiding terrain while flying VFR, read the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Terrain Avoidance Plan. The foundation's online course, Mountain Flying, also provides tips on maneuvering in mountainous terrain.
Accident reports can be found in ASF's accident database.
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