NTSB Identification: WPR13FA061
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Sunday, November 25, 2012 in Aurora, UT
Probable Cause Approval Date: 07/23/2014
Aircraft: PIPER PA28, registration: N8314E
Injuries: 3 Fatal.

NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

Family members reported to the Federal Aviation Administration that the airplane was overdue on the cross-country flight. One week after the initial notification, the wreckage was located in the upper end of a canyon about 11 nautical miles west of the departure airport at an elevation of 8,992 feet mean sea level (msl) in a grove of trees. A ridge, which was located directly in front of and on the airplane’s flightpath about 950 feet from the wreckage site, was measured at 9,186 feet msl. Evidence at the accident site indicated that the airplane initially impacted the trees on a southeasterly heading in a level attitude and that its left wing subsequently impacted a tree. The impact rotated the airplane counter-clockwise, and it subsequently came to rest upright on a northwesterly heading about 150 feet from the first point of impact. The airplane was found relatively intact except for the separation of the left wing. A postcrash fire consumed the cabin and cockpit areas; the pilot had refueled before departure. Postaccident examination of the airframe and engine revealed no mechanical anomalies that would have precluded normal operation. Although no hazardous weather conditions were reported in the area at the time of the accident, unexpected turbulent conditions can occur in mountain canyons. Further, the density altitude was calculated to be 9,663 feet, which would have adversely affected the airplane’s performance. A family member, who was a pilot, reported that, before the accident pilot departed on the first leg of the three-leg flight, he assisted him in calculating the airplane’s weight and balance for each leg. He reported that, for each calculation, he used the estimated weight of each passenger, the baggage, the two dogs, a rifle, and full fuel and that, although the airplane was right at its maximum gross takeoff weight for each leg, it was within its weight and balance limits. He stated that the accident pilot had made this same cross-country flight three or four times previously but that he did not know the extent of the pilot’s mountain-flying experience. The pilot’s decision to fly in a canyon in high-density altitude conditions near the airplane’s maximum gross weight likely contributed to the accident. The airplane was likely equipped with a 121.5/243-MHz emergency locator transmitter (ELT). Due to fire damage, it could not be determined whether the ELT switch was in the armed position or whether the ELT activated immediately after impact. Regardless, the 121.5-MHz signal would only have been detected by other aircraft flying in the remote area because satellite monitoring for 121.5-MHz ELT signals ceased in February 2009. Search and Rescue (SAR) operations, which commenced the day following the accident, took 7 days. During this time period, the Civil Air Patrol from three states flew a total of 86 missions, and local law enforcement agencies conducted additional SAR missions. SAR operations were protracted due to the lack of flight following services, ELT signal and radar data, and a digital emergency signal from a 406-MHz ELT or other satellite emergency notification device and the fact that the white airplane crashed and fragmented in a snowy, forested area, which made visual detection difficult. Two passengers initially survived the accident. They were found at the accident site wearing t-shirts and jeans; however, they were observed with warm weather coats before their departure on the day of the accident. It could not be determined whether any survival equipment was on board the airplane, but none was observed at the accident site; any survival gear may have been consumed by the postcrash fire. No evidence indicated that the survivors attempted to make an overnight shelter. The temperatures at the accident site, which was in a snow-covered area, were reportedly in the high teens to low 20s the night of the accident. The autopsy for both passengers indicated that the cause of death included hypothermia. Therefore, the two passengers did not survive the first night after the accident due to exposure to the cold temperature and the generally inclement weather conditions. It is not known whether an immediate 406-MHz ELT signal would have allowed SAR responders to reach the scene of the accident before the deaths of the two passengers; however, such a signal detection would have initiated an immediate search and greatly enhanced the opportunity for the accident site to be located more quickly.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:

The pilot's failure to maintain clearance with terrain while maneuvering in a remote mountainous region. Contributing to the accident was the pilot's improper decision to traverse the remote mountainous area in high-density altitude conditions with the airplane near its maximum gross weight. Contributing to the delay in the search and rescue (SAR) was the lack of a 406-MHz ELT signal, which would have allowed SAR responders to initiate a more timely search and find the accident site more quickly.

Full narrative available

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