Every fatal accident is tragic, but the loss is particularly keen when an instant of bad luck or a moment of bad judgment ends a promising flying career before it's fairly begun. Worse yet is seeing other young lives cut short as well, particularly when that’s the result of the trust they placed in the skills and decision making of an inexperienced pilot.
A little after 2 p.m. on June 27, 2010, a 180-horsepower Piper Arrow took off from the Kalispell, Mont., City Airport. The weather was fine that Sunday afternoon, with light southeasterly winds, clear skies, and unlimited visibility. The 25-year-old, 100-hour private pilot had rented the airplane to take three friends, ages 28, 27, and 23, on a sightseeing flight over Flathead Lake and Glacier National Park. Two of the passengers were expected at a barbecue later that afternoon, and the airplane was reported missing after they failed to arrive.
Friends and family members joined a search that eventually involved at least 10 aircraft and more than 100 volunteers, who spent three days combing steep, forested mountainsides on horseback, on foot, and with all-terrain vehicles. Others used boats to look for debris in the Flathead River and its tributaries. Finally, on the afternoon of June 30, the crew of a Department of Homeland Security helicopter spotted the wreckage at the foot of a narrow ravine. A sheriff’s deputy who rappelled down to the scene found that all four had died in the impact.
While the pilot had only logged about 100 hours, an unusually high proportion of them had been flown as pilot in command. He’d passed his private pilot checkride with less than 45 hours of flight time and progressed at once into training for his complex endorsement, which he’d earned in a little more than five more hours. By the day of the accident, he had about 30 hours in the Arrow. His instructor recalled having signed him off to solo at an unusually early stage in his training because of “his proven skill and ability to make safe decisions” and characterized him as one of the best students he’d ever had, quick to learn, confident in the cockpit, and consistently prepared for lessons. The CFI also told investigators that the young man’s attitude toward the federal aviation regulations was “respectful even when he did not agree with them” and said that he’d never seen him flying recklessly. Although he had talked of becoming a bush pilot in Alaska, they had never done “any type of low flying or terrain following flying” during dual instruction.
These last two points are of interest because during the search, several witnesses told rescuers that they’d seen the Arrow flying “very low” over the Flathead River—one estimated that it was less than 50 feet above the treetops. He added that he thought the pilot “was not using good judgment.” Another said that the airplane barely cleared the low ridge west of her house. All agreed that the gear was up and the engine sounded normal.
Radar data backed up these accounts. Transponder returns showed the airplane descending to just 300 feet above ground level on a westbound heading before contact was lost about 10 miles northeast of the accident scene. The reports placing it low above the water came from the next stretch of the river to the west, while the crash site itself was several miles down a valley oriented south-southwest. The wreckage was found on a hillside that sloped upward at 28 degrees. Both legs of the main gear were down but the nose gear may have still been in transit, raising the possibility that the pilot had extended the gear to slow the airplane for a steeply banked canyon turn to escape the rising terrain. It seems he almost made it. The airplane was found pointing north-northeast with the right wing uphill. Investigators concluded that it had stalled at an altitude too low to permit recovery.
It’s hard to reconcile this sequence with the CFI’s description of a careful, responsible student. Those of us who have survived being 25, however, might be tempted to guess how things went. After two hours over spectacular country in beautiful weather, spirits were bound to be good. The pilot’s justifiable pride in his accomplishments could edge toward overconfidence. Perhaps his passengers asked for a thrill and the day seemed too perfect to worry about details like density altitude or lack of experience maneuvering near maximum gross weight. However it came about, yet another demonstration that aviation “is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect” was made at a terrible cost—not just to the victims, but to all who searched and mourned for them.