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Accident chain builds on low-time pilot’s business flightAccident chain builds on low-time pilot’s business flight

by David Jack Kenny

We’ve all heard the saying that no one climbs into an aircraft planning to have an accident. That’s probably as close to true as any similarly broad generalization. Unfortunately, it seems that some pilots do get into the cockpit without having put much effort into planning how to avoid an accident, or even how to carry out the flight they intend to make.

Four business associates flew from Bountiful to St. George, Utah, in a Cessna 172 to meet a marketing contact on the afternoon of May 31, 2011. That gentleman and his wife provided their guests with dinner and rooms for the night. The pilot went to bed about 11 p.m. and was not observed doing any kind of flight planning for their return trip the following day. Of course, he may have attended to that after he retired, but he did not file a flight plan and there’s no record of his having obtained any kind of preflight briefing.

The time of their departure isn’t known exactly, but is thought to have been around noon. According to their host, their destination was Provo, since Bountiful Skypark had closed for two days for runway maintenance.

The first documented record of the flight came at 2:03 p.m., roughly two hours after takeoff, when the pilot contacted Salt Lake City Flight Watch asking them to “squawk me and tell me my location.” Flight Watch provided a frequency for Salt Lake Center.

The transcript of his conversation with Center wasn’t provided, but at 2:20 p.m. the pilot made contact with Hill Air Force Base requesting “guidance into the Wendover airport” some 110 nautical miles west-northwest of Provo. The controller suggested a heading; then, after re-establishing radar contact, advised that Wendover was 23 miles to the north and that Runway 12/30 was closed. The pilot replied, “Is there a runway that is open?” and was told that Runway 08/26 remained available. The controller also provided the most recent reported winds, which were from 220 degrees at 21 knots with gusts to 25.

The pilot’s first response was to ask for vectors to Tooele, about 90 nm east of Wendover, but he quickly reconsidered and decided that they’d have to stop at Wendover to take on fuel. As the controller provided vectors to the airport, the pilot asked which runway was in use and was reminded that it was an uncontrolled field. Four miles out, the pilot reported the airport in sight and was told to change to the Unicom frequency, where he made routine position reports in the pattern for Runway 26.

The actual winds at that time were even less favorable than the most recent metar: 24 knots gusting to 28 from 200 degrees, close enough to a direct crosswind for practical purposes. Members of the construction crew working on Runway 12/30 saw the Skyhawk approach the runway in a crab so extreme that it appeared almost perpendicular to the runway, “touching down on the runway multiple times, and flying down the runway sideways with the nose pointing into the wind.” Two of those witnesses thought they saw the horizontal stabilizer hit the ground before the pilot initiated a go-around. After climbing a few hundred feet, the Skyhawk began turning to crosswind only to pitch down and crash nose-first, killing all four on board. Investigators concluded that the shear from a powerful, gusty crosswind to an equally stiff tailwind precipitated a stall from which the 186-hour private pilot could not recover.

The investigation also determined that the airplane’s center of gravity was aft of rear limits by at least 2.3 inches throughout the flight, making stall recovery even more difficult, and that the weights of the passengers and baggage would have brought the airplane within 20 pounds of maximum gross weight with no fuel on board. Furthermore, the direct route from St. George to Wendover traverses five military operations areas and six restricted areas, all of which would have been avoided by flying to Provo instead.

The CFI who’d conducted his last flight review described him as “proficient, prudent, and cautious,” but also as someone who didn’t fly regularly. They’d spent some time discussing strategies for preserving that proficiency. He also recalled some tendency to “freeze up” when overloaded, which is hardly unusual in low-time pilots. Loading a Cessna 172 with four adult men was something he doubted the accident pilot would ordinarily have done.

That instructor felt that the pilot’s generally good judgment might have been distorted by self-imposed pressure to complete a business flight. We’re left to note that no matter how crucial the reasons for a trip, preparation for the actual flight is never less important.