Feeling confident about yourself is an important part of piloting. After all, no one wants to fly with a nervous Nellie at the controls, and “no one” can be extended to include the person doing the flying. That appears to be where the pilot of a Beech A36TC got into trouble, according to the NTSB's report on an accident that occurred on May 12, 2017, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. The Safety Board concluded that it was the pilot’s overreliance on his limited instrument training that contributed to his intentional VFR flight into instrument conditions, which resulted in a loss of airplane control due to spatial disorientation. It's good to be confident and rely on your experience and training when it's justified. Not in this case, though, said the NTSB.
The 69-year-old pilot held a private certificate for single-engine land and a third-class medical certificate that he had renewed on March 1, 2017. He did not have an instrument rating, but his logbook showed he had 81.7 hours of simulated instrument time, along with 16.4 hours of actual instrument time. Some might find it easy to believe that almost 100 hours of instrument practice should be enough to allow safe IFR flight should it be necessary. There was a slight complication for this pilot, however. According to what investigators reported, most of his actual instrument flight experience was between December 1999 and April 2000, something like 17 years before the accident,with the rest of it spread out from May 2013 into April 2016. The simulated instrument time was logged between April 1997 and April 2000. The Safety Board did not specify whether the actual instrument time was with an instructor, but it did report that he had logged 2.1 actual instrument hours hours as pilot-in-command. One word the NTSB did not use with respect to his instrument experience was “current.” The FAA, as we know, has specific requirements for instrument currency.
The Bonanza was registered to a limited liability company that had “members.” The accident pilot was one of them. Another member told investigators that the pilot and his wife were going to fly to Alabama for a vacation. He said the accident pilot often would fly with an instrument-rated friend. He said that on an insurance application the previous December, the pilot had reported just over 377 hours in the Bonanza. After reviewing the accident pilot's personal logbook which contained entries up to April 25, 2017, investigators reported that the pilot had a total time of 726.7 hours with 19 in the accident airplane in the last 90 days.
The airplane was built in 1981. It had six seats and had a total airframe time of just over 3,182 hours. It was powered by a turbocharged Continental TSIO-520-UB engine rated at 300 horsepower. The NTSB report didn't indicate maintenance issues.
It was about 9:42 in the morning when the flight took off from Davenport Municipal Airport (KDVN) in Davenport, Iowa. The destination was Northwest Alabama Regional Airport (KMSL) in Muscle Shoals.
Information from the FAA indicated that, after takeoff, the airplane headed southeast and climbed to 5,500 feet MSL. The NTSB's transcript of communications begins at 10:35:06, when the pilot told a Kansas City Center controller he was level at 5,500 feet. The controller acknowledged and gave the pilot the current St. Louis altimeter setting, which the pilot read back. Just over 12 minutes later, at 10:47:24, the controller handed off the pilot to another Kansas City Center controller. The pilot checked in with the new controller, again reporting level at 5,500. Nothing significant happened and, at 11:05:31, the controller asked the pilot to contact him on a different frequency, “One two seven point four seven.” The pilot responded, “One seven two point one seven.” Civil aviation VHF transceivers don't go up to 172 MHz. The controller corrected him: “Negative, one two seven point four seven.” The pilot got the readback right and switched to the new frequency.
At 11:06:11, the controller radioed the pilot, “And zero four echo, area of moderate type precipitation 12 o'clock, two zero miles, area is gonna extend, ah, at least five five miles on your route of flight.” The pilot asked, “Did you say five miles?” The controller responded, “Five five miles. Five five miles.”
That made two misinterpretations of controller communications in short order. Was the pilot getting nervous? Could something have been distracting him? There's very little to go on.
At 11:06:26, the pilot radioed, “OK, five five. Is there any, uh, any bad stuff you know, any, ah, thunderstorms in there?” The controller told him, “I can't show whether or not thunderstorms. It just tells me precipitation and it is indicating moderate and heavy.” The Safety Board said that the airplane did have a wireless ADS-B receiver on board, which could provide in-flight weather information to the pilot, but it was so damaged in the accident that no data could be recovered to help learn what, if any, weather information the pilot may have been getting.
The pilot asked the controller for more about the weather. “What's the (cloud) tops,” the pilot asked. “I don't have the tops reports,” was the reply. “OK, I might want to go up to seventy five hundred,” said the pilot. The controller invited him to “Maintain VFR, at your discretion.”
At 11:07:50, the Kansas City Center controller handed off the pilot to Memphis Center. After the pilot checked in with the new controller, he was advised to “maintain VFR and, uh, if you proceed towards Pocket City, that'll keep you in the clear, and then you can go down to your destination from there most likely.” The pilot, however, didn't quite understand. “OK, what was that?” he asked. “Papa xray victor is the Pocket City VOR (actually a VORTAC at Evansville, Indiana), and that'll get you around the east side of the precipitation, that's, ah, south of you, and once you get over towards Pocket City you should be able to find some good VFR and get down to, ah, your destination airport,” the controller said.
The pilot thanked the controller and about six minutes later the controller used the interphone system to contact a controller at Evansville Approach advising that the Bonanza was on its way. At 11:17:44, the pilot was told to contact Evansville Approach on 127.35 and, “They can help you, ah, with the weather, if you have any more questions.” In acknowledging, the pilot gave an incorrect frequency, 167.35, (also a non-existent frequency on aviation VHF radios). The controller corrected him.
The pilot checked in with Evansville at 7,500 feet and advised that he was trying to get around weather. The controller said he was advised of that by Memphis Center and, “Ah, from what I am showing, um, looks like you can continue your current course for about 20 to 25 miles, then you should be able to go back toward the south.” The pilot thanked the controller.
At 11:30:38, the pilot radioed Evansville and asked for the weather at Dawson Springs, presumably Tradewater Airport at Dawson Springs, Kentucky. “I am not familiar with Dawson Springs, um, but we can look it up and let you know,” the controller replied. Tradewater is listed as unattended with a 2,875-feet-long by 80-feet-wide turf runway. The pilot responded, "OK, I don't know if the weather was going to continue to be like this or when we turn towards our destination are we going to be clearing out a little bit and, uh, uh.” The controller responded, “I think if you turned south and then, uh, slowly started tracking back to the south-southwest, um, it should keep you clear, um, at least from what I am showing on my scope.” The pilot said he’d do that and asked the controller to let him know when he could start to turn to the right.
At 11:31:40, the controller suggested a heading of 220, and the pilot responded with, “You got eighteen,” and repeated that twice more before the controller radioed for him to stand by. The pilot radioed,”Alright.” About 30 seconds later, the controller radioed again and explained he had been on the phone with the next sector. The controller explained that based on what the next sector told him, a heading of 180 degrees would get him south of a line of weather they were seeing, and then he should be able to get over to Muscle Shoals.
The pilot then asked what it looked like at Sturgis Municipal Airport in Sturgis, Kentucky, which has a 5,000-feet-long by 75-feet-wide paved runway and various airport services. “Unfortunately, Sturgis is, uh, closed until the 29th of the month, so I couldn't send you there if I wanted to, um, I mean, I guess since you are VFR you could land there if you wanted, but it would be at your own risk. Um, from what I understand, the taxiway there are closed (sic), but the runway is not,” the controller advised.
The pilot then decided to just head 180 degrees and see if he could get past the weather, but he never quite held 180 degrees. “I'm showing you on about a 170 heading. I need you to go about 10 degrees more to the right, ah, to keep you in between what I'm seeing,” the controller advised. The pilot said he'd do it but might need to descend, presumably because of clouds.
At 11:40:25, the flight was handed off to Fort Campbell Approach, and the pilot checked in level at 5,000 feet. The controller was showing VIP Level 1 light precipitation on his scope and asked if the pilot wanted to land somewhere. “Yeah, uh, we're gonna hold for this weather I guess, ah,” the pilot said. The controller suggested Outlaw Field Airport at Clarksville, Tennessee, which had all services. The pilot asked for the airport identifier, which the controller gave as CKV. When asked for his intentions, the pilot said, “I am not sure yet here, um, I need to get down a little bit more here to see what we got.” The controller acknowledged and followed up with the Outlaw Field weather observation of wind 020 degrees at 9 knots, 8 miles visibility and a ceiling at 1,100 feet. “Alright, we'll see if we can do that,” the pilot radioed.
At 11:48:35, the pilot transmitted, “Yeah, uh, I am looking at my, uh, weather here. If I don't land here, uh, it looks like I will be clear here in just a little bit, is that correct?” The Safety Board didn't speculate whether the pilot was just looking out the window or looking at weather radar images. The controller didn't ask what he was looking at but did give him observations at Muscle Shoals, where the visibility was 10 miles with a 6,000 foot ceiling, and Nashville, where the ceiling was 7,000 feet. The pilot decided, “How about if we, uh, don't land here and, uh, we go back up to, ah, oh, I don't know, 3,500 for now, and let's get clear of this stuff.” The controller approved a VFR climb and, “I'm gonna have to vector you around restricted areas. Is there a good heading around the weather right now?” The pilot told the controller to “go ahead and vector me around,” but the controller asked the pilot, “You know, is there a better heading southwest or southeast to, uh, get for the weather?” The pilot said southeast, and the controller told him to fly a heading of 150 degrees.
Shortly after that, the controller observed that the airplane was maneuvering erratically by descending and making a sharp turn to the left, heading to the north instead of south. It then climbed up to 2,100 feet and turned back south. Moments later, the airplane was lost from radar, and the controller was no longer able to make radio contact.
A witness in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, heard a loud airplane engine but could not see the plane because the overcast was only about 1,000 to 1,200 feet above the ground. From the sound, he thought it was in a steep dive. Then he saw it beneath the overcast moving at a high rate of speed, headed west. He said that about 15 to 30 seconds later, he heard the sound of a crash. The NTSB determined that the crash took place at 11:52 Central daylight time. A weather observation taken a minute later at Campbell AAF (Fort Campbell) Airport (HOP), Fort Campbell/Hopkinsville, Kentucky, included an overcast ceiling at 1,100 feet, visibility 10 miles and wind from 360 degrees at 6 knots.
A satellite image taken about 23 minutes after the crash showed extensive cloud cover around the accident site with tops to 32,000 feet MSL. Weather radar at Fort Campbell indicated that the airplane would have been in light precipitation for at least the last five minutes of the flight. There was no record of the pilot having obtained a preflight briefing from flight service or another official source. The pilot did use ForeFlight, but the company told the NTSB that although the pilot viewed some weather images the day before and on the day of the flight, there was no record of him requesting any briefings on or around the day of the accident. An AIRMET had been issued more than an hour before the plane took off for IFR covering Kentucky and northern Tennessee and including the accident area.
The NTSB report didn't provide specifics of just how long the pilot had been flying in instrument conditions during the trip. It seems likely that he was able to maintain VFR for a lot of it, but if you're not IFR current and not even rated for it, maintaining VFR for “a lot” of any trip is not good enough. But it should be enough to make you a nervous Nellie regarding your chances for survival.
Peter Katz is editor and publisher of NTSB Reporter, an independent monthly update on aircraft accident investigations and other news concerning the National Transportation Safety Board. To subscribe, visit www.ntsbreporter.us or write to: NTSB Reporter, Subscription Dept., P.O. Box 831, White Plains, NY 10602-0831.