Plane & Pilot
Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Pilot Decides

Controllers offer assistance, but it’s the pilot’s responsibility to manage the flight

On December 22, 2006, a Cessna 421 Golden Eagle was en route from Destin, Fla., to Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas. Shortly after 8 a.m., the pilot contacted Eglin Clearance Delivery to “talk to somebody about the weather.” For about 15 minutes, the pilot and controller discussed the location of weather systems. There were several SIGMETs and AIRMETs that applied to the flight. The AIRMETs warned about IFR conditions and turbulence, including ceilings below 1,000 feet and visibilities below three miles in rain, fog and mist. Moderate turbulence was predicted below 12,000 feet. SIGMETs warned of thunderstorms with tops to 40,000 feet.

At about 8:30 a.m., the flight was cleared for takeoff with a right turn to a heading of 90 degrees and a climb to 2,000 feet. At 8:32:48 a.m., the pilot reported to Eglin South Approach Control that he was airborne and climbing to 2,000 feet. The pilot was then cleared to climb to 5,000 feet. Less than a minute later, the Eglin controller radioed, “In about another three miles, I’m showing…no weather at all between you and Pensacola [Florida].” For the next seven minutes, the Eglin controller gave the pilot vectors to get around traffic and “some weather that’s going to be southeast of your position” while the 421B finished the climb to 5,000 feet. At 8:35:18 a.m., the controller radioed the pilot, “There’s so much weather around, I don’t have a lot of area to vector you in.” Five minutes later, the controller instructed the pilot to contact Tyndall Approach, and the pilot acknowledged.

At 8:41:30 a.m., the pilot made contact with Tyndall Approach Control, and the controller advised, “I’m showing you just entering a line of weather that’s going to continue for the next 15 miles.” The pilot was instructed to maintain the last heading given by the previous controller, and then Tyndall Approach issued a broadcast for all aircraft on frequency that hazardous-weather AIRMETs were available on HIWAS, Flight Watch and Flight Service Station frequencies. At 8:44:52 a.m., the pilot contacted Tyndall Approach Control to ask if he still was on a “good” heading. The controller responded, “Fly heading one one zero,” and subsequently added, “I don’t have the weather radar that Eglin had. They put you up in this area based on the different levels of precipitation that they are showing. So all I show is precipitation returns. I’m showing you [at the] beginning line of a band of weather, and on that 110 heading, you’ll be breaking out of it in about 15 miles.” The pilot acknowledged, and then told the controller that he needed a block altitude clearance because he was “up and down here quite a bit.” The controller approved a block clearance for 4,000 feet through 6,000 feet. There were no further radio transmissions from the flight, which was lost from radar at 8:49 a.m.

A weather radar image taken from Eglin Air Force Base, which was recorded about 27 seconds before the airplane was lost from ATC radar, indicated that the airplane was close to at least one, and probably more, level-five (severe) thunderstorm. A meteorological study by the NTSB revealed that the airplane did penetrate an area of level-five weather radar echoes.

The airplane crashed into an area of heavy brush and trees at Greenhead, Fla. The ATP-rated pilot and all four passengers were killed. Records indicated that the pilot had about 15,000 hours of flight time, including approximately 900 hours in type. He had experience with a wide variety of aircraft, including military jets, and was a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s improper planning/decision and continued flight into known adverse weather, which resulted in an encounter with a level-five thunderstorm.


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