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On January 18, 2010, about 0824 Pacific standard time, a Cessna 172M, N13073, impacted upsloping mountainous terrain while cruising over the Joshua Tree National Park, about 14.3 miles southeast (138 degrees, magnetic) of the community of Joshua Tree, California. The airplane was substantially damaged, and its two pilots were seriously injured. The pilot-in-command held certified flight instructor (CFI) and commercial pilot certificates. The second pilot held a student pilot certificate. The CFI was providing primary flight instruction to the student, who co-owned the airplane with a partner. Instrument meteorological conditions existed in the vicinity, and no flight plan was filed. The flight was performed under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. The flight originated about 0800 from Roy Williams Airport, an uncontrolled airport located about 4 miles northeast of the Joshua Tree community.
Acquaintances of the pilots reported to the National Transportation Safety Board investigator that the CFI was familiar with the geographic area. The student reported that the CFI planned to instruct him in airplane operations, and they intended to fly to Palm Springs International Airport (PSP), located about 27 miles south-southwest of Roy Williams Airport. The accident occurred in the Joshua Tree Wilderness Area, while en route to Palm Springs.
According to a Southern California Terminal Radar Air Traffic Controller (SOCAL), about 0821, one of the pilots in N13073 contacted SOCAL and advised them that they were going to be landing at Palm Springs under visual flight rules.
At the time, the airplane was about 6,100 feet mean sea level (msl). To positively identify the airplane, SOCAL issued the pilot a discrete transponder code (code 0205). At 0822, the pilot acknowledged receipt of the transponder code. SOCAL indicated that seconds later, as the airplane was being identified on radar, its target disappeared. The target's altitude was about 5,600 feet msl. There were no further communications with the airplane, which appeared to have been flying in a southerly direction.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigator interviewed the student pilot on January 26, 2010. In pertinent part, the student reported that seconds prior to the accident the airplane's engine was operating normally, and it was developing between 2,200 and 2,300 rpm. Clouds were at their cruise altitude, and during their flight clouds had been below and above their altitude. The visibility was between 1/2 and 1 mile. The student stated that his CFI wanted to teach him how to maneuver around clouds, and the CFI was trying to do so while flying the airplane just before the crash. The student pilot stated that because of the airplane's proximity with clouds, he did not see the ground in front of the airplane before the crash. During the last few seconds of flight, no stall warning horn was evident.
According to the National Park Service (NPS) Lost Horse District Ranger, one of its NPS observers was driving on patrol during the morning of January 18. About 30 minutes before the accident, the observer was approaching the Keys View. (Keys View is a designated National Park view point, elevation 5,185 feet msl. It is located about 2 miles south of the accident site.) The observer stated that he noted "thick fog" covering the (nearby) mountain tops, which were not visible. Also, the thick fog on the roadway restricted his visibility to "four to five car lengths." When the observer returned to the Keys View area (about 1:45 hours after the crash), the weather conditions were worse, and he closed the Keys View access road for visitor safety.
Aeronautical Weather Observations
Elevations at the Roy Williams (departure) and Palm Springs (destination) airports are 2,464 and 477 feet msl, respectively.
At 0753, Palm Springs reported 10 miles visibility, light rain, few clouds at 4,500 feet, and broken clouds at 7,000 and 11,000 feet above ground level (agl). The temperature and dew point were 13 and 9 degrees Celsius, respectively. The altimeter was 29.90 inches of mercury.
At 0853, Palm Springs reported 10 miles visibility, few clouds at 3,300 feet, and broken clouds at 4,500 and 6,000 feet agl. The temperature, dew point, and altimeter setting were unchanged from the previous hour.
AIRPLANE & WRECKAGE INFORMATION
The accident site is located about 33 degrees 57.3 minutes north latitude by 116 degrees 11.6 minutes west longitude, and between 5,200 and 5,300 feet msl.
This site is about 14 miles south-southeast (155 degrees) from Roy Williams Airport, and it is approximately 2 miles southeast (135 degrees) from the last recorded radar hit. The last radar hit indicated the airplane was at 5,600 feet (Mode C transponder altitude).
The airplane came to rest on upsloping mountainous terrain, upside down, and adjacent to impacted boulders. There was no fire.
Airframe and Engine Examination
Under the direction of the Safety Board investigator, the airplane was examined following its recovery by the Cessna Aircraft Company participant, while under the observation of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspector. In pertinent part, the engine was found ripped from its firewall attachment fittings, the wings were bent, and the fuselage was deformed.
The propeller was torsionally twisted and exhibited leading edge gouges and scratches in a chordwise direction. No evidence of a preimpact engine failure was observed during the external visual inspection of the engine's case, accessories, and spark plugs. The fuel tank selector was in the "Both" position.
The continuity of the control cable system was confirmed from the cockpit to the flight control surfaces. The wing flaps were found in the retracted position, as evidenced by actuator measurement. No evidence of a preimpact failure or malfunction of the airframe, control systems, or engine was found.
An unfolded and soiled Los Angeles Sectional Aeronautical Chart was found in the airplane wreckage.
The mountainous terrain south of Roy Williams Airport is depicted on the Los Angeles Sectional Aeronautical Chart. Mountain peaks about 4 miles northwest and 1 mile south of the crash site are identified as being 5,813 and 5,600 feet msl, respectively.
Search and Rescue
FAA personnel conveyed to the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) the circumstances of this loss of radar and communication event. RCC personnel assigned a search mission to the voluntary Civil Air Patrol (CAP) organization. The CAP dispatched an airplane to overfly the area in the vicinity of where the loss of radar event occurred. The CAP's airplane crew detected transmission of an emergency locator transmitter (ELT) beacon on frequency 121.5 MHz and relayed the beacon's approximate location to its ground crew. The CAP flight crew reported that due to the inclement weather, no visual contact with the ground was possible. CAP ground personnel, along with NPS personnel, commenced hiking into the mountainous area. Using handheld homing devices, the airplane was located about 2215 hours. Both pilots were found inside the upside down airplane.
Recovery personnel reported that the airplane's altimeter indicated 5,250 feet msl at 29.97 inches of mercury. The airplane's transponder was set to code 0205. The ground scar behind the airplane was consistent with the airplane having been flying in a southerly direction at the time of impact. The terrain height to the south of the airplane was estimated about 5,500 feet msl.