Get extra lift from AOPA. Start your free membership trial today! Click here

Power line predicament

How did this pilot end up here?

A Mooney M20J pilot prepared his return to Montgomery County Airpark (GAI) in Maryland from White Plains, New York, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti
Illustration by Brett Affrunti
On approach, the aircraft descended well below glide path and decision altitude, eventually striking the power lines.

The trip home was shaping up to be more demanding than the trip up had been earlier that morning. Weather back home at Montgomery County had lowered to 400 feet overcast and a mile and a quarter visibility. Night would fall before arrival, so the pilot was preparing for a very low IFR approach on a dark night—as demanding as it gets in general aviation flying. Despite the long day and holiday weekend, he’d need to be at peak performance.

The circumstances proved too much. The pilot struck power lines a mile short of the runway, well below the published decision altitude. Thankfully, he and his passenger survived. They hung suspended in the Mooney in the power lines for several hours before first responders could free them. Two more saves for the notoriously tough Mooney fuselage.

The hour and 15-minute cruise appeared uneventful. As the pilot approached the terminal phase and received vectors to the initial approach fix (IAF) from busy Potomac Approach, things started to unravel. We only have one-sided communications, but we can detect some confusion in the cockpit of N201RF. The pilot was initially cleared to the RNAV-A, a circling approach, but night/low IFR is no time for circling, so the pilot requested and received clearance to BEGKA, intermediate fix for the RNAV to Runway 14. The pilot began a turn to the northwest, some 70 degrees right of the heading that would take him to BEGKA. Potomac Approach checked him a couple of times on unexpected headings that took the Mooney in a different direction than cleared and expected by Potomac. At one point approach asked if the pilot was having trouble loading the approach, and gave him a vector to BEGKA.

The pilot recovered with help from Potomac at least enough to track the RNAV approach course inbound, but according to the NTSB preliminary report he remained below—and in some cases, well below—altitude restrictions on the entire approach. Inside the final approach fix, Potomac noticed a low altitude return and issued two low altitude alerts, but the pilot was off frequency, clicking the Montgomery County unicom to activate runway lights and attempting activation of the lights four separate times, while steadily getting lower on the approach. He dropped well below the decision altitude and struck the power lines and a support tower; the stout Mooney saved his and the passenger’s lives.

Confusion in the initial setup for the approach may have rattled the pilot and put him behind the airplane for the remainder of the approach. He was likely struggling to confirm inputs in his GPS and perplexed as to why Potomac was correcting his heading, or why the fix he programmed took him on an unexpected heading, away from his destination. He may have inadvertently set BECKA in his navigation system, a similar-sounding fix about 40 miles northwest of his position that was directly on course with his errant heading.

The setup for this accident started long before confusion inbound to the initial approach fix. Perhaps some holiday influences—time and emotional pressures—nudged the pilot to launch in such demanding conditions.The situation is a good reminder to all pilots that when entering the approach phase of flight, navigate to fixes programmed on the approach rather than manually entering them, except in unusual cases in which ATC should be clear and specific. Pilots must ensure their situational awareness is strong and they are ahead of the airplane, mentally and physically in complete situational control before beginning an IFR approach—especially so in demanding conditions like very low IFR at night. If a pilot is struggling with any aspect of the flight, they should buy some time and get some space. Talk to ATC and advise them of an apparent systems problem, ask for a vector to climb back into clear air, or ask for vectors to a holding pattern where you can delay, on autopilot if equipped, long enough to sort out any confusion, confirm programming of your systems, and get mentally back ahead of the airplane. Barreling in, trying to claw back in front of the airplane while on an approach in low IFR is fraught with risk and is unnecessary.

The setup for this accident started long before confusion inbound to the initial approach fix. Perhaps some holiday influences—time and emotional pressures—nudged the pilot to launch in such demanding conditions. Did he realize on his trip out to White Plains that weather for the return trip would be so low? What were the constraints that prevented him from either launching earlier to make the low IFR flight back home in daylight, or delaying the flight altogether—on either end, the launch in the morning or the return flight home. A thorough review of the forecast for the day and a candid discussion on expectations with family and others counting on us for the flight can help with planning and help relieve family pressures and set expectations.

When he started the approach, weather was below minimums, so he should have been expecting to fly the missed approach. But based on his actions, it does not seem he was flying in that mental mode. Once inbound on the approach, the NTSB reported the pilot missed each altitude at every fix on the approach. He was consistently low, and low enough that a missed approach was warranted. It’s unclear why he never corrected. Was he unaware of his altitude misses, or was he working unsuccessfully to regain control of the approach? A corrective action that pilots must keep at the ready is to go missed. Continuing inbound, letting the situation deteriorate and the risks accumulate, is a lead-up to disaster. Missing altitudes inbound on an approach is an extreme red flag and pilots must take immediate action.

Continuing inbound, letting the situation deteriorate and the risks accumulate, is a lead-up to disaster. Missing altitudes inbound on an approach is an extreme red flag and pilots must take immediate action.Inside the final approach fix, it appears the pilot attempted to activate the Montgomery County runway lights several times. This may indicate he was looking outside and frustrated that he wasn’t seeing the airport lighting. Perhaps his transition to visual, searching in the dense mist for the runway is why he dropped so low, so early. In media interviews, the pilot had no explanation other than that he obviously just dropped too low. The situation is a reminder to all of us who fly IFR not to transition too early from instruments to visual, especially in low visibility with ragged bottoms to the clouds. Our instruments have done a good job getting us this far; let’s stick with them a little longer. Transitioning to visual too early can cause disorientation, lead to altitude deviation, and if we go back in the clouds, force us to mentally transition back to instrument flying—a demanding action so close to the ground. Better to glance for the runway, while primarily flying on instruments; wait until we have clear, solid visual with the runway; then continue to cross reference glideslope or other vertical guidance all the way in to touchdown.

The Mooney pilot and his passenger were fortunate. This tragedy could have been much worse. We can take lessons from this escape and work to further develop our preflight and in-flight decision making. If momentum is beginning to shift away from us, we must stop it, find a way to buy some time and space, get back ahead of the airplane, and shift the momentum back in our favor.

[email protected] 

Richard McSpadden

Richard McSpadden

Senior Vice President of AOPA Air Safety Institute
Richard McSpadden tragically lost his life in an airplane accident on October 1, 2023, at Lake Placid, New York. The former commander and flight leader of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, he served in the Air Force for 20 years before entering the civilian workforce. As AOPA’s Air Safety Institute Senior Vice President, Richard shared his exceptional knowledge through numerous communication channels, most notably the Early Analysis videos he pioneered. Many members got to know Richard through his monthly column for AOPA's membership magazine. Richard was dedicated to improving general aviation safety by expanding pilots' knowledge.

Related Articles