By David Jack Kenny
Often it happens in stages. The high scattered layer at the departure airport thickens along the way. The ceiling drops as it closes from broken to overcast; trying to maintain VFR, the pilot descends as well. By the time conditions stop qualifying as even marginal VMC, the destination airport might be the nearest field. Even at night, the temptation to slip below those last few miles of clouds can become nearly irresistible.
Our excuses for accepting that risk are rarely as serious as the consequences.
According to the lineman on duty at the Hereford, Texas, Municipal Airport, the pilot of the 1976 Piper Lance wasn’t particularly anxious to head home. He and three friends had flown down from South Dakota to attend a livestock auction and had stayed later than planned. One of his passengers, however, wanted to get back “to see his wife or girlfriend.” The 30-year-old commercial pilot topped off the tanks at the self-service pump and the Lance took off around 5 p.m. on April 27, 2014, flying VFR without a flight plan. According to his family, the pilot intended to drop off one passenger at Highmore, S.D., before returning to his home base of Gettysburg.
Ten minutes after takeoff, the pilot contacted the Fort Worth Flight Service Station to request the forecast for winds aloft, giving his destination as North Platte, Nebraska. The briefer advised that strong quartering headwinds would switch to strong quartering tailwinds as they passed a low-pressure center along the border separating Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado, and that thunderstorms were anticipated around North Platte. Strong surface winds were expected to kick up enough dust to reduce visibility at altitudes below 15,000 feet msl. The pilot reported unrestricted visibility at 8,400 feet below a broken ceiling he estimated at 10,000 feet msl.
At 6:12 p.m., the pilot sent a text message to his wife advising that they were “Into KS aways” [sic]. At 7:23 p.m., a second message reported “Into NE.” His wife replied “You flying low? Cloud cover here is really low (foggy) but just misting.” The pilot responded, “No, not yet.” At 8:54, he sent another message reporting that they were “going by Chamberlain [South Dakota].”
About 10 minutes earlier, a witness camping near the banks of the Missouri River had watched an airplane pass overhead at an altitude he estimated as 200 feet. Its position lights were on and its engine sounded normal; it was flying fast, headed northeast. At 9:15 p.m., a homeowner about a dozen miles south of Highmore heard an airplane pass “low” over his house; he also described the engine noise as “normal.” The clouds were very low—he guessed 200 feet—and the winds were “blowing like crazy” at around 30 mph.
The airplane was reported missing after it failed to arrive at Gettysburg. A Hyde County search party found the shattered wreckage around 3:30 a.m. The Lance had collided with the blades of a wind turbine, the fifth in a string of 27 making up a wind farm just 10 miles south of the Highmore airport. One blade was broken into three pieces, and the other two showed impact damage. The hub of the tower was 213 feet above the ground and the blades extended another 100 feet, so the airplane was no more than 313 feet above the ground at the moment of impact.
The wind farm was not shown on the sectional chart. (It was added to the next revision). Moreover, the investigation found that the anti-collision lights on this particular turbine were inoperative at the time, raising the possibility that the pilot mistook the darkness for a gap in the line of towers. However, there is also evidence that the pilot was familiar with the entire installation: He had previously “expressed his concern” about it to the Rapid City FSDO.
A professional agricultural pilot, he had more reason than most to be aware of low-altitude obstructions—and to be comfortable operating close to the ground. His logbook documented almost 3,900 hours of total flight time that included 100 in the same make and model, and also showed that he was current both for instrument flight and to carry passengers at night. The NTSB pointed out that both he and the airplane were qualified to operate under IFR, but also noted that Highmore has no instrument approaches—and an Airmet Zulu predicted moderate icing from the freezing level up to Flight Level 200. The nearest airport—Pierre, S.D.—reported a temperature of 6 degrees Celsius and a dewpoint of 5 degrees Celsius, suggesting a low freezing level with plenty of moisture in the air.
It’s not surprising that he didn’t want to take his chances in those clouds, but even over the prairie 300 feet is awfully low when you’re still 10 miles from the airport on an overcast night. Yes, five more minutes and they would have made it home. But every five minutes is another roll of the dice when you’re sharing airspace with obstructions and can’t see what’s ahead.