Early in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, readers are informed that a bowl of petunias thought, “Oh no, not again.” (It’s only several sequels later that we finally learn why.)
Those who spend enough time reviewing NTSB accident reports tend to have a similar reaction. It is, after all, pretty rare that someone comes up with a new way to wreck an aircraft. Most are variations on the same familiar themes: fuel exhaustion, say, or low-altitude stalls. Runway excursions are always popular. And every year two to three dozen pilots pay with their lives—and those of their passengers—for the mistake of trying to continue VFR flight while marginal weather deteriorates into outright IMC. A few more forget that a night flight over open water or dark terrain can easily become an instrument flight regardless of the ceiling and visibility reported back at the airport … and also make it impossible to tell whether you’re in the clouds or not.
The Nov. 6, 2011, crash of a Cessna 182 near Alamo Lake, Ariz., falls into this last category. The 333-hour private pilot had flown his wife and their son from Lake Havasu City to Glendale, Ariz., that morning to attend an Arizona Cardinals home game. The game, which started at 2:15 p.m., went into overtime and didn’t end until around 5:30 p.m., less than 10 minutes before sunset. They lifted off on the return flight about 6:10 p.m., just at the end of civil evening twilight.
A friend who met them at the game recalled that the pilot was concerned about the weather for the return flight, especially if they’d have to fly after dark. In his initial weather briefing just after 8 a.m., he’d been advised that a cold front was moving eastward across southern California into western Arizona, bringing broken ceilings and a chance of rain showers. Lake Havasu City was also at the edge of the area covered by an airmet for moderate icing between 5,000 and 12,000 feet msl. He apparently received an updated briefing before the return flight, though the details have not been made public.
The pilot was certainly familiar with the 120-nautical-mile route between Lake Havasu and Glendale. His logbook showed that he’d made the trip 11 times during the past 14 months, nine of them for Cardinals games. Four of the return flights, including one just two weeks earlier, had taken place after dark, but all four had been made in clear skies with unlimited visibility.
Clear skies still prevailed when the Skylane took off from Glendale, but as it flew west the clouds were moving east to meet it. Track data recovered from the pilot’s handheld GPS showed that the airplane maintained a northwesterly course at an altitude of 6,000 feet for about 80 miles. In the vicinity of Alamo Lake, however, it began to wander off heading, making a shallow left turn and then correcting back to the right as it descended to 5,000 feet. Then, over the course of two and a half minutes, it made a 70-degree left turn, a 90-degree right turn, and finally a 180-degree turn to the left during a rapid descent. The last data point recorded was at 3,153 feet, about 800 feet above the elevation of the crash site.
As the NTSB reports, almost the entire route was over “minimally lit, uninhabited desert terrain.” The moon was up and almost full, but by the time the airplane reached Alamo Lake, it had been obscured by the building clouds. The pilot had not filed a flight plan, and the airplane was not reported missing until two and a half days later, when he failed to show up for work. In this case, though, it’s unlikely that the delay in beginning the search affected their chances of survival. The NTSB report describes the crash site this way:
The first identified point of impact was characterized by a 6-foot-wide crater, which contained the engine, propeller, and sections of the instrument panel. Both wings, and the horizontal and vertical stabilizers, were positioned above the engine, and had sustained accordion-like crush damage perpendicular to the chord, from their leading edges through to the aft spars.
In other words, the airplane bored straight down into the hillside, presumably after spatial disorientation caused its pilot to lose control. The impact was not survivable.
Every fatal accident is an individual tragedy, unique in the agony it causes those left grieving for its victims. But at the same time, almost all fall into patterns that have become much too familiar. The same mistakes that have claimed one pilot after another, over and over again, will almost certainly go on claiming more. Careful attention to their stories can illuminate those underlying patterns—and help you avoid joining them.