The fatal crash of a Cessna T310R near Cody, Wyoming, on July 18, 2015, bore all the hallmarks of a sudden engine failure at altitude. The flight took off from Sheridan at about 10:30 a.m. with four people on board: the 66-year-old commercial pilot, his girlfriend, and his sister and brother-in-law. Their initial track was westward over Yellowstone National Park, flying VFR at 13,500 feet msl—barely 1,000 feet higher than the tallest peaks in the vicinity. Near the western edge of the park, the twin Cessna turned south and then east, cruising about 5,600 feet above the surface of Yellowstone Lake.
At 11:48 a.m., still level at 13,300 feet, the pilot contacted the Salt Lake ARTCC to request an IFR clearance direct to Billings. After identifying the airplane on radar and confirming that the pilot could maintain terrain and obstacle clearance, the controller issued the requested clearance and assigned an altitude of 15,000 feet msl. He did not advise the pilot of an airmet for icing between 14,000 and 22,000 feet msl, but it’s not clear that the Cessna was actually in the clouds at any point.
As the airplane reached 15,000 feet msl, the Salt Lake controller attempted to hand it off, but received no response from the pilot. Radar track data show the airplane making a sudden left turn and descending rapidly out of coverage, losing 1,700 feet in just eight seconds. An alert notice was issued 23 minutes after contact was lost. The wreckage was found on a steeply forested hillside at an elevation of 7,762 feet, “severely fragmented” prior to a post-crash fire. Damage to the surrounding trees was limited to the severed top of one tree and scrapes down the trunk of another, suggesting a near-vertical descent. The condition of the left propeller indicated that while it had not been turning at impact, its blades had not been feathered. Examination of the left engine revealed no obvious cause for the loss of power. Witness marks on the right propeller showed that its engine had continued to run.
While acknowledging that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to determine the reason for the engine failure, the NTSB concluded that the probable cause of the accident was, “The pilot’s loss of aircraft control following the loss of power in the left engine...” Not explicitly noted is that a climb is a far less forgiving regimen in which to deal with an engine failure than flying straight and level. The airplane is operating at a lower airspeed, higher angle of attack, and higher power setting, all of which allow airspeed and control authority to decay far faster than they would in cruise flight. The case file on this accident indicates that the pilot held a commercial multiengine rating, and that 163 of his 571 hours of total flight experience had been logged in the Cessna 310. It would be helpful to know how recently that experience had included engine-out drills under the supervision of a suitably expert instructor.