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Dangerous shortcutsDangerous shortcuts


By David Jack Kenny

Sometimes, people will do anything to get ahead in life, including falsifying information and taking short-cuts. In aviation, those actions can be deadly.

Just after 11 p.m. on Nov. 22, 2008, a Piper PA46-500TP Malibu Meridian crashed on short final to Runway 16 at Marshfield, Wis. The pilot and both passengers were killed. The field was VFR, with 10 miles visibility under a 2,900-foot broken ceiling and a 3,500-foot overcast ceiling. Winds were 3 to 5 knots, aligned with the runway. Witnesses said that the airplane appeared to be making a normal approach until about half a mile from the threshold, where it abruptly rolled hard to the left. The nose dropped and the airplane disappeared from sight; an explosion followed within seconds. Examination of the wreckage suggested a nose-down impact with the engine running. The propeller was found two feet underground, 60 feet from the fuselage.

The NTSB blamed the accident on “The pilot’s failure to maintain control … for undetermined reasons.” But the sudden loss of control—in light winds within sight of the runway—wasn’t the only thing that was odd.

The Meridian had flown VFR from Green Bay without a flight plan, cruising at 10,500 msl en route. But the sky at Green Bay was overcast at 7,000 feet agl (about 7,700 msl), and the ceiling at Marshfield was 2,900 feet. Based on the airplane’s radar track, the investigators concluded that the pilot had climbed and descended through the clouds without a clearance.

He had bought the Meridian new about 10 weeks before. Immediately after taking delivery, he’d completed a training course that included 20 hours of ground instruction, 8.5 in the simulator, and 5 hours in flight. At its conclusion, he was signed off for a flight review and instrument proficiency check.

His instrument rating and commercial certificate (single- and multiengine) had been granted on the basis of military experience. That application, filed in September 2006, was supported by a résumé claiming a degree from the Naval Academy, four years on active duty flying F-14s and T-44s (a military variant of the King Air 90), and continued reserve service since 1993. This was accompanied by a U.S. Navy Instrument Rating Request Form claiming 11,009 flight hours, including 8,602 of actual and 1,001 of simulated instrument experience.

After the accident, the Navy found no record of him in its personnel files. Both his wife and his father told investigators that he’d never served in the armed forces. FAA records list him as having gotten his student pilot certificate in November 2005, a private pilot certificate in February 2006, and a multiengine rating that May. The applications for his checkrides claimed 122 and 249 hours of civilian experience, respectively.

The Meridian was the fifth Piper he’d owned in less than two years. He bought an Archer in February 2007 and kept it for five months, followed by a Saratoga II TC (seven months), a Matrix (three months), a Malibu Mirage (five months), and then the Meridian. His registration for the Meridian training program listed 749 hours of experience. The Meridian had its 50-hour service two months after he took possession.

If those figures can be believed, he flew a lot in his three-year career, but also took some dubious shortcuts. Having learned instrument flying well enough to complete an instrument proficiency check, it’s not clear what he saved by skipping the checkride, nor why he was willing to trust to the motto “big sky, little airplane”—plus luck—to fly through clouds with no one providing separation from other aircraft. It’s ironic that he got away with such a flight only to lose the airplane on final approach. Given the risks he’d been taking, though, it’s not entirely surprising that something caught up with him.

Essential Aerodynamics on-line course

Do the Right Thing Safety Advisor

"Beware the Dark Side" (Safety Pilot article, July 2004 Pilot)