This month’s column should more properly be called After the Accidents, as we’ll look at three recent fatal crashes. In each case, the same cause was clear to everyone on the ground but invisible to each of the pilots.
On the morning of Sunday, June 16, 2019, a classic 1948 yellow and silver PA-11 Piper Cub Special was aloft in the beautiful clear blue skies above Copperopolis, California. Alone in the plane was a 58-year-old private pilot with 450 hours of flight time and a passion for flight. This father of three boys had married into a family that also loved flying. Friends described him as a kind and respectful man.
A friend of the pilot got a text earlier in the day saying the pilot would be doing a “flyby” over Lake Tulloch. It’s a scenic 1,200-acre man-made lake, with houses around the shore and lots of recreational water activities. He received another text when the pilot was a few minutes out. The low pass attracted a lot of attention from people outside enjoying Father’s Day.
One witness, a pilot for a major airline, was on her lakefront house’s deck and watched the plane flying about 50 to 75 feet above the water, engine sounding good, flight path appearing under control. The friend who got the texts told the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that from his boat, he “saw the pilot fly past, about 150 ft above the water, do a ‘wing wag’ and smile. About 2 seconds later, [he] heard [his] grandkids scream the airplane had just crashed.”
Other people saw the defining event. One family on a boat had waved to the pilot, said he waved back, then watched him bank right, climb upward and hit power transmission wires. Another witness said the pilot was flying at about 100 feet, low and slow, when he struck power lines and nosedived down. One couple reported the plane was flying at 75 to 100 feet, “wagged his wings,” and collided with power lines. It descended into the water nose-first and was fully submerged within 30 seconds.
There is no doubt when it happened. At 11:41 a.m., 3,100 Pacific Gas & Electric customers lost electric power. When the plane was recovered a few days later from under 110 feet of water, the leading edge of the wing was compressed and “exhibited,” according to the NTSB, “striations that…were consistent with a braided wire cable.” After the accident, a survey crew measured the heights of the power lines over the lake, finding the lowest was 72.9 feet and the highest 83.9 feet above the water. Following a lengthy investigation, the NTSB determined the probable cause to be the pilot’s “failure to maintain clearance from power lines while maneuvering at a low altitude.”
The second crash happened a few months later, on Aug. 29, 2019, in St. Ignatius, Montana. It was a sharp-looking blue Beechcraft Debonair BE-35, flown by its owner, a 49-year-old private pilot with 750 hours total time. He had two friends in the plane with him. It was a little before 4 in the afternoon, on a nice day, with light winds and the lowest cloud layer at 11,000 feet.
They had left from Miller Field airport in Valentine, Nebraska, to spend time at a ranch in Montana. The pilot had done the trip many times. It was common practice for him to fly low over the property to alert ranch hands they’d be landing soon at nearby St. Ignatius airport and needed someone to come out and give them a ride. But on this day, a ranch hand said he had “never seen him that low.”
Another person told the NTSB he “heard the airplane, turned to look up and saw the airplane hit the wire.” A third witness, in a truck, “heard a bang and turned to see sparks, pieces of wing coming off the airplane and the pilot losing control.” Reviewing onboard GoPro video camera footage, the NTSB got to see the whole sequence. The pilot overflew one set of power lines, then descended while approaching the ranch and struck power wires strung between towers. One of the power transmission wires snapped; another remained intact but was left with aircraft wreckage hanging from it. They are 50 to 60 feet tall and are marked on the Great Falls VFR sectional chart.
The aircraft came to rest close by, inverted in a flat hayfield. The entire left wing as well as parts of the vertical stabilizer and rudder had separated from the fuselage. NTSB examination of the airframe and engine “revealed no evidence of mechanical failures or malfunctions that would have precluded normal operation.” All three occupants died.
The third crash was on the afternoon of Sept. 26, 2020, in Alberta, Canada. It was a two-seat single-engine Harmon Rocket II (a piston-powered homebuilt that is made by modifying a Van’s Aircraft RV-4) flown by a 4,500-hour well-known and highly skilled aerobatic display pilot. He had flown this plane at airshows throughout Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. On this day, he flew from the Rocky Mountain House Aerodrome, Alberta, to the Huggett/Goodwood Field Aerodrome. A friend, who was also a pilot, sat in the back seat. The plan was to join more friends for a day of go-carting at a race track next to the airport. The weather was benign, 62 degrees Fahrenheit, lowest clouds at 6,000 feet with 20 miles visibility.
Rather than just flying a traffic pattern and landing, the pilot flew two circuits, then turned away from the airport and descended to approximately 25 feet above the ground. Videos by his friends on the ground show he flew over the racetrack’s long straightaway from north to south. At the south end of the straightaway, the aircraft started to climb, then struck an unmarked rural power line that ran east/west along the edge of the racetrack.
He hit the wire just above the aircraft’s nose. It then slid up the cowl until finding the front of the canopy. The canopy fractured and immediately separated from the airframe, landing in a field. The remainder of the aircraft crashed in a high-energy impact about 2,000 feet from the power line. Much of the aircraft was destroyed by fire. Both occupants died.
After the accident, the power lines were measured as 35 feet tall. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) could find no mechanical discrepancies in what was left of the aircraft and noted that it appeared fully under control in the videos of the flyby.
That the plane was under control is one of the many similarities shared by these three accidents. In all cases, the weather was good, the planes were flying fine, the pilots experienced, current, healthy and properly certificated. But every pilot intentionally flew well below 100 feet, then accidentally hit power lines.
And they are not alone. Also in the last few years, a pilot in a Cessna 172 flying along the Mississippi River, below the level of trees along the riverbank, hit power lines and died. Another pilot, in Iowa, flying very low, struck power lines and lived. Eight days later, at 40 feet, he hit power lines again and died.
The TSB final report on the Canadian accident notes that “the hazards of low flying cannot be over-emphasized…Wire strikes account for a significant number of low flying accidents. A number of these accidents occur over level terrain, in good weather and at very low altitudes.” It may be because if you’re looking down at the ground, you won’t register anything ahead of you. The FAA Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) is clear that “these lines may not always be readily visible and the wires may be virtually impossible to see under certain conditions.”
Large power transmission lines are marked on sectional charts, but that inclusion is not intended to show pilots where they are when they’re hotdogging right above the deck. They are on there because their clearways make great visual checkpoints when looking down from normal cruising altitudes. Big, thick wires strong enough to break an airplane at low altitudes are essentially invisible. The solution is clear—don’t fly that low.
Do you want to read more After the Accident columns? Check out “Cessna Caravan Pilot Crashes After Missing Red Flags” here.