Plane & Pilot
Saturday, November 1, 2008

Weather Encounters

Take weather briefings seriously

There’s never been so much pre- and in-flight weather information available for pilots. If you can’t gather the raw data, forecasts and current airport observations by yourself, a briefer at a Flight Service Station (FSS) can do it for you. Unfortunately, some pilots continue to experience trouble applying the wealth of data and meteorological analyses to the realities of flight.
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The pilot phoned Miami Automated International FSS and advised that he would be departing for YAF from FXE at 9:00 a.m.; he requested a weather briefing and said that he would file a VFR flight plan. The briefer reported that the remains of a low-pressure disturbance were in the area of the Northern Bahamas and some showers were present along the coast of Florida as far north as Titusville and as far south as Biscayne Bay. The weather was moving to the south and, locally, there were some heavy returns. The NTSB didn’t report whether the pilot had any sort of access to weather radar visuals, either directly via computer or by glancing at a television airing local weather. A visual depiction would likely have had a greater impact on the pilot than the verbal description provided by the briefer. The airplane wasn’t equipped with radar or Stormscope.

At 8:48 a.m., the pilot contacted the FXE clearance delivery controller, requesting VFR flight following to YAF at 7,500 feet. The pilot was cleared to maintain VFR conditions and to fly an east departure from FXE. At 8:50:31 a.m., the pilot contacted the FXE ground controller and was cleared to taxi to runway 08. At 8:56:10 a.m., the pilot was cleared for takeoff and subsequently handed off to Miami Departure Control. The pilot was instructed to maintain VFR conditions at or below 3,000 feet. Later, the pilot was told to contact Miami Approach by the Fort Lauderdale North controller. This controller also told the pilot to maintain VFR conditions at or below 3,000 feet. At 9:01:38 am., the controller cleared the pilot to fly a course heading of 130 degrees, then cleared the pilot for a VFR climb and requested his final altitude. After acknowledging, the pilot said he was going to stay around 2,500 feet because of some weather in front of him.

At 9:04:03 a.m., the pilot attempted to contact the Miami North Approach controller, stating he was at 3,200 feet. The controller didn’t respond and, at 9:07:08 a.m., the pilot again attempted to contact the controller, stating he was at 4,000 feet, climbing to 7,500 feet. The controller responded and gave the pilot the current altimeter setting, which the pilot acknowledged. That was the last transmission from the pilot, and the flight was subsequently lost from radar contact. Search-and-rescue operations began, and at 10:45 am., a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew located a debris field on the ocean about three miles north-northwest of the flight’s last radar position. By the time a Coast Guard ship arrived at the site, the debris field had broken up and nothing could be recovered.

The pilot held a private pilot certificate with single-engine and multi-engine land ratings; he didn’t have an instrument rating. His FAA third-class medical certificate was issued with no limitations. The pilot’s logbook couldn’t be located, but investigators learned that the pilot had slightly more than 200 total flight hours.

The pilot owned the accident airplane, which hadn’t had an annual inspection within the preceding 12 months. The last altimeter and airplane static system test was performed on March 6, 2000. FAR Part 91.411 requires the test every 24 months in order for the airplane to be certified for IFR operations. The last transponder system test was also performed on March 6, 2000. FAR Part 91.413 requires the test every 24 months in order for the airplane to be certified for IFR operations or in airspace where a transponder is required. The Miami Doppler weather radar image at 9:18 a.m., overlaid with Miami Approach radar data for the accident flight, depicted the flight track of the airplane departing FXE east-southeast into a line of level 4 thunderstorms that would be expected to contain severe turbulence with lightning. The Miami Doppler image at 9:24 a.m. depicted “intense” echoes within one mile of the flight path, consistent with level 4 and 5 thunderstorms that would probably contain severe turbulence, lightning, hail and organized surface wind gusts.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s continued VFR flight into known adverse weather conditions, resulting in an in-flight loss of aircraft control. Contributing to the accident were thunderstorms.

Peter Katz is editor and publisher of NTSB Reporter, an independent monthly update on aircraft accident investigations and other NTSB news. To subscribe, write to: NTSB Reporter, Subscription Dept., P.O. Box 831, White Plains, NY 10602-0831.


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