This time of year, many pilots are planning flights to visit family for Thanksgiving or the December holidays. Often these trips cover long distances, and the pressure to get there and get back home on schedule can be strong. Faced with marginal weather conditions, some pilots may feel compelled to take chances—to push the limits of their abilities, their ratings, and their better judgment in an effort to complete the flight. It’s a decision that invites tragedy.
Flying home on Thanksgiving weekend in 2005, the VFR-only pilot of a Piper PA-28-140 Cherokee attempted to scud run below a 900-foot ceiling. The relatively flat Nebraska terrain was forgiving, but the 1,000-foot radio tower in his path was not. The collision sheared off both wings and killed the pilot and two passengers.
The flight departed Centennial Airport near Denver, Colo., about 7 a.m. on Nov. 27. After spending Thanksgiving with family, the pilot, his young daughter, and his fiancée were returning home to Morris Municipal Airport near Morris, Ill., a trip of about 750 nautical miles.
About three hours into the flight, the Cherokee was passing Atlanta, Neb. Weather conditions were deteriorating ahead of an approaching winter storm. The METAR at nearby Brewster Field Airport was reporting 19-knot winds gusting to 24 knots, 10-mile visibility, sky overcast at 900 feet agl, temperature 1 degree C, dew point -1 degree C, and altimeter 29.32. Witnesses reported random patches of heavy rain.
A motorist traveling on U.S. Highway 6 later described the scene that unfolded: “About a mile past Atlanta, Nebraska, I noticed a plane heading east. It was flying low, below the clouds and dangerously close to the KLNE Channel 3 TV station tower. …Suddenly the plane struck the tower or one of the tethers that held the tower up. The tower began to crumble and the plane crashed into a nearby field.”
NTSB investigators found both wings separated from the fuselage, which came to rest inverted about 500 feet from the base of the collapsed tower. The right wing had a semicircular crush in the leading edge, while the left wing showed linear tearing consistent with guy wire impact. A transfer of “aviation orange” paint from the tower was found on the propeller. The throttle and mixture controls were in forward positions, and the airspeed indicator was stuck at 120 mph.
The tower was depicted on the Omaha sectional chart as an obstruction standing 1,066 feet agl. The tower site manager had inspected the structure about 10 minutes before the accident. He reported that the tower’s lights were operating, although the top 100 to 125 feet of the tower was hidden in the clouds.
The NTSB cited the noninstrument-rated pilot’s failure to maintain clearance from the marked tower and his continued flight into adverse weather as the cause of the accident. A factor in the crash was the low ceiling.
The hazards of scud running are well documented over mountainous terrain. But even above the flatlands of Nebraska, attempting to squeeze a fast-moving airplane between low clouds and terra firma is a dangerous gamble. When the ceiling drops below the maximum elevation figure (MEF) depicted on aeronautical charts, a VFR-only pilot belongs on the ground.
Sadly, the accident pilot passed within a few miles of three different airports during the last 50 miles of his flight. Each provided an opportunity to land, secure the airplane, and rent a car for the remainder of the trip. (Or rent a hotel room, call the boss, and say, “I’ll see ya Tuesday.”) The key to a safe holiday flight is having a solid Plan B—and a willingness to use it.