Pilots accustomed to flying highly capable, go-anywhere professional equipment may be slow to recalibrate their sense of what’s feasible when stepping down to more typical owner-flown aircraft. Given one dubious decision or a bit of bad luck, those constraints can reassert themselves in a hurry.
Just before 7:45 p.m. on Dec. 17, 2015, the pilot of an amateur-built Van's Aircraft RV-4 radioed Tallahassee, Florida’s air traffic control tower to declare an emergency. The pilot reported having entered instrument meteorological conditions at an altitude of 1,500 feet, “and I gotta be honest, sir, my airplane is not capable of IFR.” Radio and radar contact were lost within the next minute. Radar track data showed the airplane making a 180-degree left turn in 43 seconds, then a 90-degree right turn in 37 seconds before dropping off the scope at an altitude of 1,200 feet. About 9 a.m. the next day, searchers from the Madison County Sheriff’s Office found the wreckage in a pine forest a quarter mile from the last radar hit. There was no wreckage path through the trees, suggesting a nearly vertical impact.
There’s no question that in a suitable airplane, the flight would have been well within the pilot’s abilities. He was an active U.S. Navy flight instructor tasked with giving advanced instruction in the T-45C Goshawk jet. Naval records show that he was qualified to conduct not just day and night familiarization and instrument training, but also teach two- and four-ship formation, night formation, and single-ship low-level navigation flights. In addition to more than 1,850 hours of military experience, he’d logged 218 hours of civilian flight time that included 126 hours in the RV, which he’d bought from its builder some 15 months earlier. And one week before the accident, he’d earned his civilian flight instructor’s certificate for the express purpose of teaching his college-age cousin to fly.
Earlier that day, he’d flown from his base in Meridian, Mississippi, to the Apopka Airport northwest of Orlando to pick her up. They’d planned to stop for fuel in Tallahassee on the way back to Meridian, where she’d get some initial flight training during her spring break. The pilot’s father described them both as “very driven and highly motivated individuals who pushed themselves to squeeze the experience of her learning to fly a small plane into already crowded lives.”
While airborne over Alabama at 2:25 p.m., the pilot had contacted flight service for a weather briefing. Airmets for turbulence, icing, and IFR conditions were all in effect at his location at that time, and a center weather advisory described a line of showers with embedded thunderstorms that were moving northeastward at 40 knots between him and his destination. He did not get an updated briefing before leaving Apopka at 6 p.m., but did talk to a local flight instructor who was a former FAA inspector and accident scene investigator and had also worked as a flight service briefer. That gentleman recalled telling the pilot that the weather was “really bad along a line from just west of Tallahassee and to the northeast,” with an approaching cold front pushing a line of showers, low ceilings, and diminished visibility to the east. He later told investigators that the pilot agreed but was “in a hurry,” adding that “had he been a less qualified pilot, I would have taken him back inside and gone over the weather in detail with him.”
It was already dark when the RV took off; civil twilight had ended, and the moon was obscured by clouds. The pilot requested and obtained flight following services, and several times controllers advised him of precipitation ahead. At 7:08 p.m. the pilot told Jacksonville Approach that he was diverting to Thomasville, Georgia, north-northeast of his current location, “for better weather,” but the flight continued to track northwest and then due west. It flew out of radar coverage at 7:22 p.m., but was picked up again four minutes before the accident.
Among the items found in the wreckage were his cousin’s student pilot certificate ... and her brand-new logbook, with no lines yet filled in.