If you fly IFR long enough, you'll probably have the unpleasant experience of knowing someone who'll die in an IFR accident. So far, I've had half a dozen personal friends come to grief during IFR operations, but two stand out because they were both better than I'll ever be, and both were victims of CFIT (controlled flight into terrain). Plus, I know another pilot who had a narrow escape from a CFIT scenario and learned a valuable lesson.
Take away the personal loss, and most of us like to read about findings of probable cause, not because we have a ghoulish interest in those extremely rare instances when a pilot makes a critical error, but in hopes of learning a few things about how and why accidents happen, so the rest of us can avoid the same traps.
Both of the friends who crashed were professionals in the business of flying, selling or demonstrating general aviation airplanes. The first was a factory test pilot on a press tour with a new twin back in the late '70s. He flew out from Wichita to demonstrate the airplane to four aviation magazines in Southern California. Each of us got to spend a day with the airplane doing pretty much whatever we wanted with the company pilot in the right seat to make certain we didn't break anything.
On my appointed day, I flew an air-to-air formation session in the early morning. We came back to Long Beach, had lunch, then went up to do some airwork and single-engine practice.
We were finally done at about 4 p.m., and the company pilot loaded up some suitcases and had his wife take the right seat, then departed to visit friends in the San Diego area.
The weather was decent, but not great. There were scattered to broken low-level clouds on the short 90 nm run down the coast. The clouds partially obscured foothills of the coastal mountains, but it was clear above 5,000 feet. I said goodbye to my friend, watched him depart and went home to my typewriter. (Remember those?)
Later that evening, I heard the first news reports of the accident. A twin-engine aircraft had flown into a hill in the Ramona area. I was astonished when I learned the victims had been my friend and his wife.
Post-crash investigation suggested the airplane was operating at normal cruise power, and had been straight and level at the moment of impact. A VFR flight plan had been filed, but the weather had been cloudy, and the accident had occurred just after sunset. This was long before the advent of GPS, so establishing an exact position wasn't as easy as it is today.
It took some time to wrap my head around the fact that a pilot I regarded as far superior to me had made what seemed like a bush-league mistake.
The second accident again involved seasoned pros at the controls, this time flying a new turboprop with every possible avionics advantage: Garmin radios, terrain, traffic, radar altimeter and every other possible option. It was late winter of 2006, and the two pilots were ferrying the airplane from Wichita to California.
They had refueled in Palm Springs, filed IFR, but never activated it and were headed through the Banning Pass for Van Nuys. Banning is a fairly wide valley 90 miles east of Los Angeles. The valley floor starts near sea level, but mountains on both sides reach above 10,000 feet.
Clouds were stacked up in the pass, and the pilots were trying to duck under well below the level of the peaks, doing their best to avoid the clouds and the uncharacteristic icing conditions above.
They were talking to L.A. Center, dodging the clouds and attempting to stay in the center of the pass. Center advised they were headed toward an area of high terrain, and one pilot replied, "We're maneuvering away from it right now." No further reply was received from the aircraft. The wreckage was found at the 6,000-foot level in steep terrain on the north side of the pass. The NTSB concluded the probable cause was continued flight into IMC and failure to maintain airspeed, resulting in a stall/spin scenario.
CFIT has been identified as a probable cause in hundreds of accidents in the last 60 years. According to Boeing, it's responsible for 9,000 deaths since the beginning of the jet age. Additionally, CFIT accidents comprise 25% of all Class A USAF mishaps between 1993 and 2002.
CFIT devolves from a simple problem—loss of situational awareness. The near-universal adoption of GPS in the last 20 years has helped reduce incidence of CFIT accidents, and recent introduction of TAWS technology has further improved the accident rate, but the syndrome remains one of the leading causes of IFR accidents. As demonstrated above, it strikes without regard to training or experience, and the consequences are usually severe.
The pilot of the near-CFIT incident mentioned above was delivering a new Piper Aerostar from California to Florida, again in the late 1970s. He had flown that route at least three dozen times, operating a succession of Aerostars on the 2,000 nm trip from Piper's Santa Maria factory to Lakeland where the airplanes would be tanked and flown overseas.
He knew from experience that if he left early enough and the winds were willing, he could make one quick-turn fuel stop in Waco, Texas, continue to Tampa, catch the last Continental jet back to Los Angeles and be home late the same day.
The weather was down for the first 800 nm, but looked good from Waco east. Our hero departed Santa Maria just before sunup in acceptable VFR conditions, but quickly found himself faced with icing conditions at about 13,000 feet and up. As a result, he asked for lower and was assigned 11,000. He was able to maintain altitude just below the ceiling and remain out of the ice.
The route took him across the southern terminus of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and again, because he had flown the trip many times, he assumed he'd be fine to cancel IFR, and stay between the rocks and the ice when the clouds began to slope downhill.
The plan began to come apart early on. Weather drove him farther north where the mountains rose higher toward Mt. Whitney. The gap between earth and frozen sky was beginning to narrow. He was occasionally scudding through the bottoms of clouds.
Eventually, long after he should have made the decision to reverse course or begin an immediate climb, he popped out of a cloud to see a solid granite wall straight ahead. He slammed the yoke full back and zoomed up into the clouds at 3,000 fpm.
A minute later, when he stopped holding his breath, he finally stabilized at 15,000 feet, immersed in cloud, but well above the highest terrain in the Lower 48 states. He promised himself he'd never make that same stupid mistake again, and he hasn't. He continues to find new ones.
And, by the way, in case you hadn't guessed, that cocky pilot from 40 years ago was me.