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Descending ceilings, rising terrain sandwich pilotDescending ceilings, rising terrain sandwich pilot

(DEN07FA053)(DEN07FA053)

By David Kenny

On Jan.17, 2007, a Cessna 182 departed Hunt Field Airport in Lander, Wyo., at 4:35 p.m., about 15 minutes before sunset. Just before 6 p.m. it arrived at Gillette-Campbell County Airport in Gillette, 167 nautical miles to the northeast. There is no record of the 3,000-hour VFR-only pilot having received a weather briefing before takeoff, and he made a quick turnaround after landing. Within 20 minutes, he had picked up a passenger, topped off the tanks, and headed back to Lander.

Weather on the outbound flight had been VFR, with 10 miles visibility under a 9,000-foot overcast ceiling. But back to the west, conditions were getting ugly. At 6:44 p.m., Riverton—about 20 nm northeast of Lander, along the route of flight—reported two miles visibility in light snow, and by 7 p.m. the ceiling had dropped to 2,600 feet broken. A special METAR issued at 7:29 p.m. reported three-quarters of a mile visibility with vertical visibility of just 800 feet.

Even though visual conditions still prevailed around Gillette, the pilot seems to have had trouble getting oriented. Flight-track data recovered from his handheld GPS showed a series of turns shortly after takeoff—from an initial heading of north to southwest, then southeast, back to southwest, then 180 degrees around to northeast—before he began following State Highway 59 southbound. After tracking the road for about 10 miles, he turned right and flew southwest over sparsely populated country.

According to his family, the pilot had been “flying around Wyoming since the early 1980s” and was very familiar with this route. The terrain rises to the west: In the 30-mile gap between the Rattlesnake Hills and the southern flank of the Big Horn Mountains, base elevations are close to 6,000 feet, with hilltops as high as 7,314 feet. The Cessna 182 flew toward it at altitudes between 6,800 and 7,300 feet msl.

In descending ceilings, decreasing visibility, and rising terrain, the pilot collided with terrain at about 6,500 feet. An alert notice was issued the next morning, and within three hours the Civil Air Patrol located the wreckage about 45 nm east of Riverton. The airplane had hit rolling, snow-covered terrain in a wings-level attitude, striking the nose gear first, then the right wingtip. The pilot and passenger were fatally injured.

The main wreckage came to rest 325 feet from the first point of impact, the engine another 225 feet further west. The NTSB noted that “The fuselage and cockpit were destroyed.” The shoulder harnesses had not been fastened.

Data from the pilot’s GPS showed that during the last two minutes of the flight, the airplane maintained relatively constant airspeed and heading, but descended steadily from 7,016 feet msl to 6,455 feet msl. Elevation at the accident site was about 6,500. At the time it occurred, the weather there included high winds, snow, and poor visibility, making it even more difficult to maintain visual contact with the snow-covered landscape. The NTSB cited the pilot’s inadequate pre-flight planning as a factor contributing to his fatal decision to continue flying westward after losing visual references.

Ignorance isn’t always bliss. Not asking for bad news may work in other parts of life, but in the air what you don’t know can kill you. Weather in particular can change, and change suddenly. It’s worth taking a few extra minutes between legs to see whether things are still going according to plan, and decide what to do if they’re not.