The Puget Sound in Washington State is host to some of the most beautiful flying in the world. It is also known for treacherous flying conditions, luring both VFR and IFR pilots into traps of its own making.
Shielded from the Pacific Ocean to the west by the Olympic Mountains and nestled up against the foothills of the Cascade Mountains to the east, the inland waters of western Washington extend more than 70 miles, stretching from the San Juan Islands in the north, to the state capitol of Olympia to the south.
Gusty winds out of the south and multiple layers of broken and overcast clouds had been present all day on October 29, 2004. Stations in the Puget Sound Basin reported ceilings between 3,000 and 6,000 feet with visibilities between 4 and 9 miles.
Just past 10 p.m. the pilot of a rented Cessna 172 contacted the Seattle FSS, requesting a standard VFR weather briefing from Paine Field near Everett, Washington, to Troutdale, Oregon, a flight of about one hour and forty minutes. Although the weather conditions along the pilot's intended route of flight were mostly VFR, the briefer reported a few areas of marginal VFR (MVFR) conditions with light rain and low ceilings.
The pilot's aircraft was fueled prior to departure. At 10:44 p.m. she contacted Seattle Approach, reporting that she was 3 miles southwest of Paine Field requesting flight following to her destination. For the next 45 minutes, Seattle Approach followed the flight in a general southbound direction over Puget Sound. Occasional lapses in navigation occurred on the part of the pilot. At one point, the controller steered her away from inadvertent penetration of a temporary flight restriction (TFR). Another time she requested "help in getting out of Class Bravo airspace."
Thirty-seven miles north of Olympia at 11:09 p.m., the pilot asked to land at Olympia and requested vectors to the field. The controller instructed her to "maintain VFR and head 130 degrees for initial vectors to Olympia." The controller then advised her of Olympia's weather.
At 11:42 p.m. the controller advised the pilot that the airport was at "12 o'clock and 7 miles" and asked her if the airport was in sight. She said no and added that she was in rough turbulence.
At 11:48 p.m. the controller radioed that radar contact was lost. The pilot responded that she was climbing and told the controller she "had a lot of rain" and asked if she should turn north back to Tacoma. Five minutes later, the controller asked the pilot if she could see the ground. There was no response.
The last radar contact with the accident aircraft was only 4 miles west of the Olympia Airport.
The next morning, the wreckage of the Cessna 172 was located on a ridge just 6 miles west of Olympia Airport. The pilot was dead.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident was the pilot's failure to maintain clearance from terrain while maneuvering in known adverse weather conditions. Clouds, rain, high wind, dark night, trees, mountainous terrain, and the pilot's inadequate in-flight planning/decision making were factors.
The pilot had been issued her private pilot certificate 90 days prior to the accident and had accumulated about 105 hours total time. She had been working toward an instrument rating and commercial certificate. About 48 hours of her total time were as pilot in command with 10 hours at night.
An airplane is not a go-anywhere, go-anytime machine. Pilots must always assess their abilities and operate within them, especially VFR only pilots. Low light, rain, wind, turbulence, and inhospitable terrain combined to create an obstacle that this pilot could not overcome. How important was this flight to the pilot? We may never know but she paid a high price for the outcome.
To learn more about interpreting forecasts and en route weather, take the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's newest online course, Weather Wise; Ceilings and Visibility, available in AOPA Online Safety Center.
Accident reports can be found in ASF's accident database.
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