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Hurrying To Oshkosh, Never Arriving

The crash of a Zenith LSA in Missouri shows how multiple factors can come together to create a disastrous outcome.

From the NTSB’s official docket of the crash of a Zenith LSA in 2017 after the plane, flown by a VFR-only pilot, according to the NTSB, inadvertently entered an area of IMC on a day of widespread instrument flying conditions.

In July 2017, after flying for about 12 minutes over Missouri, a Zenith Light Sport Aircraft crashed while turning back to the airport from where it had just departed. The 41-year-old pilot and his wife were both killed in the crash.

The pilot was a passionate outdoorsman, loving every sport he participated in. The list included motocross racing, hunting, skiing, scuba diving, skydiving and flying powered parachutes. In fact, most of his flight experience was in motorized parachutes, a glorious way to experience the air and slowly unroll- ing landscapes below. He had logged 162 hours in his Pegasus-powered parachute, cool flying that was seen in a local TV news story a year before the crash. KFSM 5NEWS captured attractive aerial views 800 feet above Arkansas, with the pilot saying, “There’s nothing like it. When you’re up in the air, your troubles are behind you, you get rid of the day, you’re just free.”

More recently, he had flown a few hours in a Cessna 150, earning a Light Sport Pilot certificate with single-engine land rating. He purchased a Zenith CH701SP Experimental Light Sport Aircraft. White with yellow trim, the short takeoff and landing (STOL) optimized tricycle-gear two-seater was a recreational plane, pure and simple.

The all-metal tricycle gear airplane had been constructed by a home-builder in 2003. Powered by a 100 hp Rotax 912ULS engine driving a three-bladed Warp-Drive 70-inch fixed-pitch composite propeller, the airframe had a total of 1,142 flight hours recorded in its logbook shortly before the accident. The National Transportation and Safety Board notes it wasn’t equipped or certified for instrument flight rules flight. The pilot had logged almost 100 hours in the Zenith before the fatal flight. Consistent with Sport Pilot limitations, he had logged no night or instrument flight time.

The goal was to fly to the EAA AirVenture airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, from his hometown of Greenwood, Arkansas, a trip of about 580 nm. It’s a big undertaking for a new pilot in a small plane with limited range.

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It just so happened that about halfway along the straight-line routing is the Mexico (Missouri) Memorial Airport (MYJ), home to the Zenith Aircraft Company. That’s where the pilot and his wife landed on July 26, bought 17.8 gallons of fuel and spent the night. The airport manager told the NTSB he believed they camped that evening next to the airplane. Their plan was to arrive at Oshkosh at 7:00 a.m. local time, right as the control tower opened. When the manager arrived at the airport the next morning, the airplane was gone.

According to the NTSB report, the couple broke camp predawn and took off around 4:40 a.m., while it was still very dark. No flight plan was filed. There is no record of the pilot having obtained a weather briefing, but in this iPad age, that’s not too surprising. However, the NTSB wrote, the weather should have given them pause, a long pause. At 04:15, the MYJ AWOS reported a visibility of 1.5 miles in heavy rain, broken clouds at 1,100 feet, overcast at 1,900 feet, barely VFR weather. Nevertheless, they departed toward Oshkosh.

Data from the U.S. Air Force/Civil Air Patrol reveals their flight path, first appearing on radar at 04:44 about 5 miles east of MYJ. At takeoff, the visibility was 7 miles in light rain, wind from 240 degrees at 7 knots, broken clouds at 600 and 1,200 feet, overcast at 1,900 feet, distant lightning in several quadrants. Cruising altitude varied between 2,000 and 2,800 feet above ground level, as the pilot maintained a steady northeast heading. After nine minutes, the radar track began to wander and then entered a right descending turn, completing a 180-degree track change, seemingly heading back to MYJ. But the descent continued, with a last radar return at 04:53.

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The Zenith crashed into open, level farmland in a right-wing-low, nose-low attitude. There was one main impact crater, with a debris path extending for a couple of hundred feet. The MYJ weather at 04:55 was visibility 7 miles, scattered clouds at 600 feet, broken 3,300 feet, overcast 4,800 feet, thunderstorm and rain in the vicinity.

After the accident, the wreckage lay undisturbed for almost a day. There was no flight plan filed. There were no witnesses. The installed C91A ELT did not activate. Eventually, friends and/or family members reported the couple missing. The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center provided search coordinates to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which located the wet crash site at 1:00 in the morning. Both occupants were pronounced dead at the scene from blunt force trauma. Both the FAA and NTSB investigated the area.

The Safety Board’s final report defines the event as a VFR encounter with IMC. No pre-impact anomalies with the aircraft were found. The NTSB straightforwardly lays it out: “Although he had no night or instrument flight experience, the sport pilot departed in a non- instrument-certificated light sport airplane at night with an overcast ceiling and thunderstorms in the area.” He attempted a turn back but was “not paying attention to his altitude,” became spatially disoriented and lost control.

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Why would a pilot make the decision to depart in that airplane in that weather? Clearly, he wanted to make it to Oshkosh at 7 a.m. Maybe he underestimated the weather. Maybe he didn’t understand how quickly anyone can lose control in IMC without the right instruments and training.

The NTSB also uncovered a physiological aspect to the accident, with postmortem toxicology testing and pilot medical records revealing prescription drugs taken for a history of chronic insomnia and anxiety. The Safety Board wrote, “It is likely that the pilot’s decision-making was degraded due to his combined use of temazepam and hydrocodone.” The patient warnings for hydrocodone, an opioid analgesic, say it “may impair the mental or physical abilities needed to perform potentially hazardous activities such as driving a car or operating machinery.”

In a few moments, the beauty and freedom of flying the pilot once shared with TV viewers came crashing down quickly. It ended in a dark sodden bean field after a flight that never should have taken off—a flight in dark and stormy conditions by an inexperienced pilot flying a plane not equipped for instrument flight. All of those risk factors should have added up to a decision simply not to go flying. Tragically, that’s not how it turned out.

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As a sad coda, NTSB crash site photos taken the day after the accident show bright sunshine and clear skies. PP

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