When an aviation icon is lost in an accident, there’s the expected period of grief, followed by some hand-wringing and, usually, numerous vows to honor the deceased hero or heroine by learning from what happened so that it never happens again. The NTSB’s files once again provide evidence that what sounds honorable and righteous often doesn’t translate into reality.
An awful lot of people were shocked when legendary test pilot Scott Crossfield was killed on April 19, 2006, when his Cessna 210A crashed at Ludville, Georgia, after having flown into an area of intense to extreme thunderstorms, leaving the rest of us to ask how it could happen to such a highly respected and experienced pilot.
The flight had departed Prattville, Alabama, and was en route IFR to Manassas, Virginia. Crossfield was the only person on board. The airplane, which had been in cruise at 11,000 feet MSL, descended rapidly and was destroyed on impact. It was equipped with a Continental IO-470-E engine, rated at 250 horsepower, which apparently had been running fine.
After the accident, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, eulogized Crossfield as “not only one of the greatest pilots who ever flew, but as an expert aeronautical engineer, aerodynamicist and designer who made significant contributions to the design and development of the X-15 research aircraft and to systems testing, reliability engineering, and quality assurance for the Apollo command and service modules and Saturn V (rocket) second stage.”
Crossfield’s supersonic and high-altitude flights were vital to the success of America’s space program. On Nov. 20, 1953, Crossfield had made aviation history by becoming the first person to fly at more than twice the speed of sound, flying the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket.
For the 2006 fatal flight, which flight took place more than 50 years after Crossfield had achieved Mach 2, the pilot had obtained several preflight weather briefings and apparently was aware of the potential for a squall line and other convective activity along the route of flight. The NTSB reported that Crossfield had discussed the weather with an acquaintance and said that he might have to do some avoidance. The 210A was equipped with a StormScope lightning detection instrument as its only weather detection gear.
The Safety Board could not find evidence that Crossfield had received updated weather information while in flight. He had been airborne for about an hour when things got serious. The NTSB found that a band of extreme weather that likely included embedded supercell-type thunderstorms was showing on the controller’s radar in the projected path of Crossfield’s airplane. The controller did not provide severe weather advisories and did not tell Crossfield what was on the radar.
About 11:09 eastern daylight time, Crossfield was in contact with the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center and transmitted, “I’d like to deviate south (for) weather.” The controller replied, “Roger, we’ll show you deviating south for weather and your mode C indicates one one thousand five hundred.” Crossfield did not respond. Less than a minute later, radar contact was lost with the airplane at 5,500 feet.
Investigators made a plot of the aircraft’s radar track. The data indicated that the airplane entered a Level 6 (extreme) thunderstorm before it went off radar.
Local law enforcement personnel found the wreckage the next day. The airplane had gone down in remote mountainous terrain about 3.3 nautical miles northwest of Ludville.
The controller told investigators that even though adverse weather existed throughout the area, he did not issue the information to Crossfield because he felt that weather conditions displayed on his radar were unreliable and pilots have a better idea of the weather. The controller said that the weather displayed at ATC can be between 6 and 15 minutes old and is widely viewed as being unreliable.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident was Crossfield’s failure to obtain updated en route weather information, which resulted in his continued instrument flight into a widespread area of severe convective activity, and the controller’s failure to provide adverse weather avoidance assistance as required by FAA directives, both of which led to the airplane’s encounter with a severe thunderstorm and subsequent loss of control.
As you’d expect, after the NTSB adopted its probable cause on Sept. 27, 2007, a lot was written about Crossfield’s accident and a lot of pilots made a lot of promises to themselves and others to learn more about weather, and risk management, and flight planning and decision making, and to never allow the same thing to happen to them.
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Life doesn’t always cooperate. For example, barely 10 years after the NTSB’s report on Crossfield was released, another Cessna 210 on an IFR flight plan flew into severe weather and crashed in the southern part of the U.S. This one was a T210L and had been flying from Orlando, Florida, to Jackson, Tennessee. The pilot and three passengers, including the pilot’s wife, were killed when the plane entered an uncontrolled descent, suffered an in-flight breakup and crashed near Hayden, Alabama.
This Cessna had been built in 1974. It had undergone an annual inspection on July 18, 2016, at an airframe total time of about 4,258 hours. The engine was a Continental TSIO-520-R rated at 310 horsepower.
The flight had been cruising at 10,000 feet MSL. At about 1:57 p.m., central daylight time, the pilot asked to deviate right of course due to weather. About 23 minutes later, he asked for clearance to climb to 12,000 feet, also due to weather. That was approved and the controller at Atlanta Center handed him off to another controller. The pilot checked in saying, “At ten thousand eight hundred climbing to twelve to avoid storms in the right deviation.” The controller responded with what no doubt sounded like anything but good news: “I’m showing moderate to extreme precip anywhere from ah, nine o’clock about ten miles, twelve o’clock about five miles, and then northbound moderate to extreme precip, ah, from one to two o’clock and twenty miles and then all of this extends another thirty, forty miles on your route of flight. Did you say you are deviating or you need to deviate?”
The pilot responded, “I am on a flight deviation but I’ll go anywhere you think it’d be a quick ride across.” The controller said, “I don’t really see a better way than what you’re doing. If you want to just continue to pick your way through the precip that’s fine and then when able, ah, direct destination. Let us know when you’re on course.” The pilot said he would.
At about 2:29, the airplane began to make a series of descending right turns. At 2:29:47, the controller radioed, “Watch your altitude. Maintain one two thousand.” The pilot replied, “I’m trying.” A few seconds later, the controller radioed, “Check your altitude. Maintain one two thousand.” There was no response.
At 2:30:08, the controller again tried to raise the pilot. “I’m trying, I’m trying,” was the pilot’s reply. The controller asked the pilot how he was reading the transmissions. The pilot said, “I’m having some trouble.”
At 2:30:32, the controller radioed, “You’re losing altitude. I need you to watch your altitude.” The pilot replied, “I’m doing the best I can.” The controller said, “If you want, go back to the east, go back to the east. You’ll get away from that precip. If you can go back to a ninety heading or something like that.”
There was no response from the pilot, and the controller radioed at 2:30:57, “If you can, head to the east or southeast away from that weather. You can get, you can get away from it and, ah, ah, if you’re in some, um, moderate extreme chop I think getting to the east would be better.” The pilot replied, “I’m working on it.” The controller urged the pilot to watch the altitude.
At 2:31:58, the controller radioed the pilot to ask how he was doing. The reply was unintelligible. At 2:32:11, the controller radioed that he showed the pilot descending down to 5,800 feet. “Check your altitude,” he said. There was no response. Radar contact was lost when the airplane got down to about 2,000 feet.
The controller kept trying to raise the pilot but was unsuccessful. He asked another pilot to try to make radio contact, but that also was unsuccessful.
“Local law enforcement personnel found the wreckage the next day. The airplane had gone down in remote mountainous terrain about 3.3 nautical miles northwest of Ludville.”
The pilot of this Cessna 210, at age 45, was a lot younger than Crossfield and had a lot less experience. Although investigators did not get to review his logbook, they noted that his application for an FAA third-class medical certificate showed a total flight experience of 288 hours as of August 22, 2016. He was rated for single-engine land airplanes and had an instrument rating.
The pilot had obtained at least two preflight weather briefings from an online service and filed an IFR flight plan. His second briefing was about 20 minutes before departure.
Investigators learned from the taxi driver who took the pilot and passengers to the airport, the pilot’s wife asked how long it would be if he just went over the storm and the pilot said it would be 3 hours and 25 minutes because he would lose time if he had to go so high. The taxi driver reported that the wife said he should plan to fly over the storm because she needed to land by around 3:30.
Two controllers who worked the flight told investigators that the pilot was on frequency when they broadcast SIGMET for thunderstorms with tops exceeding 40,000 feet that affected his route of flight. One SIGMET was broadcast about an hour into the flight while the second was issued about 40 minutes before the accident.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the accident was the pilot’s decision to continue the flight into known adverse weather conditions, which resulted in spatial disorientation and a subsequent loss of airplane control and in-flight breakup.
Eerie similarities in widely separated accidents such as these should provide ample evidence that safety education continues to be a critical element of pilot proficiency…and one that is still is not receiving the attention it demands.