Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Steve Fossett Accident

The NTSB’s findings on the famed aviator’s fatal crash

HOW IT HAPPENED. Nearly two years later, the NTSB finds that Steve Fossett (pictured with Richard Branson) may have crashed due to an encounter with downdrafts.
The NTSB says the probable cause of the 2007 crash of adventurer Steve Fossett was an inadvertent encounter with downdrafts above mountainous terrain that exceeded the climb capability of the Bellanca Super Decathlon he was flying. Downdrafts, high-density altitude and mountainous terrain were all contributing factors. None of those factors should be taken for granted by pilots who fly, or have a desire to fly, in mountainous areas. In simple terms, while wind flows smoothly up the windward side of a mountain, and the updrafts can be used to help an aircraft make it over the crest of the terrain, downdrafts on the leeward side can become terrifyingly strong and turbulent. Areas of turbulence and downdrafts can be surrounded by deceptively smooth air. Just because there are no lenticular clouds, rotor clouds or dust storms doesn’t necessarily mean that conditions are benign. Before conducting a flight in or near mountainous terrain, an experienced pilot should carefully evaluate the weather, especially winds aloft, approaching frontal activity and stability information such as the lifted index. A smart, inexperienced pilot will confer with someone who knows how to evaluate conditions, and also get a checkout with an instructor qualified to teach mountain flying before venturing into unknown territory.

In a meteorological study prepared for its report on the September 3, 2007, accident in which Fossett was killed, the NTSB estimates that downdrafts where he was flying registered at least 400 fpm and were accompanied by moderate turbulence. The mountainous terrain in the area, eight miles west/northwest of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., reached 13,000 feet MSL; the density altitude was 13,000 feet. Investigators calculated that the climb capability of the airplane was only about 300 fpm.

On the morning of the accident, Fossett had breakfast with the chief pilot for the Flying M Hunting Club, which operated the Super Decathlon out of the Flying M Ranch (owned by Barron Hilton), near Yerington, Nev. The chief pilot asked Fossett what he wanted to do that day, and Fossett said he wanted to fly the Super Decathlon 8KCAB-180. The chief pilot got the airplane out of its hangar and checked that it had full fuel. Fossett conducted the preflight. The chief pilot discussed starting procedures for the fuel-injected, 180 hp Lycoming AEIO-360-H1A and asked Fossett what route he’d be taking. Fossett planned to follow Highway 395, which runs north/south along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The estimated time of departure from the private airstrip was between 8:20 and 8:30 a.m. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed. The elevation of the airstrip is 4,953 feet MSL. The accident site was about 65 miles south of the airport.

Fossett occupied the front seat of the two-seat tailwheel airplane. He gave no indication that he planned to perform aerobatic maneuvers and he wasn’t wearing a parachute, which he would have for aerobatics. His wife told investigators it was a pleasure flight, which she characterized as “a Sunday drive.” The chief pilot said that he expected Fossett to be back around 10:30 or 11:00 a.m. When the airplane hadn’t returned by 11:30, the chief pilot became concerned. An extensive search was conducted. The Civil Air Patrol suspended its search on October 2, 2007.

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