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Aviation Accident

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NTSB Identification: ERA09FA145
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Friday, January 30, 2009 in Huntington, WV
Probable Cause Approval Date: 10/06/2010
Aircraft: PIPER PA-34-200T, registration: N8047C
Injuries: 6 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.

The non-instrument-rated pilot departed Lake in the Hills Airport (3CK), Lake in the Hills, Illinois, on a cross-country trip to Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU), Raleigh Durham, North Carolina, in the accident airplane without filing a flight plan; therefore, the planned and most of the actual flight routes could not be determined. Further, no record was found that the pilot obtained a weather briefing before the flight. In addition, postaccident weight and balance calculations indicated that, when the airplane took off, it exceeded the allowable weight and center of gravity limits. Another pilot at the airport advised the accident pilot to file a flight plan, recalculate the weight and balance, and obtain a weather briefing; however, no evidence indicates that the pilot did so.

Although visual meteorological conditions were recorded at RDU for the expected time of arrival, snow was forecast and instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) were observed for en route areas between 3CK and RDU for the time before, during, and after the flight. The noninstrument rated pilot exercised poor judgment by attempting a visual flight rules cross country flight, over mountainous terrain, without getting adequate weather information for the flight route, especially in January when snowy conditions are likely.

The accident occurred near Huntington Tri-State Airport (HTS), Huntington, West Virginia, which was about 350 nautical miles (nm) from 3CK and 10 nm southwest of the direct flight route between 3CK and RDU. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) radar data first recorded the airplane about 1244 central standard time at an altitude of about 9,700 feet about 50 nm southwest of HTS and then showed the airplane turning northeast toward HTS. According to FAA air traffic control (ATC) transcripts, about 1305, the pilot transmitted a “mayday” call to the HTS ATC tower and then advised, “I’m flying VFR [visual flight rules], low on fuel, and need to land.” Subsequently, the local controller asked the pilot if he was capable of instrument flight, and the pilot responded, “yes,” even though he was not instrument rated. (The airplane was equipped for instrument flight, and no evidence indicated that an instrument malfunction occurred.) About 8 minutes later, the controller asked the pilot how much fuel was on board, and he answered, “not much.” For about 10 minutes, the controller attempted to vector the airplane to HTS. Although the pilot stated several times that he had visual ground contact, he was not able to maintain it, and he never acknowledged that he had the airport in sight.

After about 12 minutes of providing detailed course headings and corrections to the pilot, the final approach controller was able to vector the airplane onto an extended final course for an airport surveillance radar approach to runway 30 at HTS. However, when the airplane was about 3 nm from the runway, it turned about 80 degrees off course to the left. The controller vectored the airplane back to the right, and the airplane turned so far to the right that it proceeded directly opposite the original inbound course. Additionally, the airplane descended below the minimum descent altitude, which the controller issued to the pilot, and which the pilot acknowledged, multiple times.

Weather conditions recorded at HTS, which was about 4 nm northwest of the accident site, included an overcast ceiling at 1,000 feet and a visibility of 3/4 statute mile in snow. Witnesses at the airport and in the vicinity of the crash site described the snowfall at the time of the accident as “heavy” and estimated the visibility to be between 1/4 and 3/4 mile.

The pilot did not request any in-flight weather assistance nor did he seek any ATC assistance before the situation had deteriorated. After the pilot contacted ATC, his communications became fragmented and intermittent, consistent with increased workload resulting from efforts to control the airplane in IMC. Although ATC attempted to guide the pilot to a landing at HTS using an airport radar surveillance approach, these efforts were not effective as evidenced by radar data showing that the pilot could not maintain assigned altitudes or headings, indicating that he was most likely experiencing spatial disorientation during the attempt to maneuver the airplane for landing. The spatial disorientation was likely caused by his operating in reduced visual conditions (clouds and falling snow), which obscured outside references, and his inability to consistently use the airplane’s instruments to positively maneuver the airplane when this occurred.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
  • (1) The pilot’s failure to perform adequate preflight planning and to use available in flight resources in a timely manner and (2) his decision to continue visual-flight-rules flight in instrument meteorological conditions despite his lack of an instrument rating and proficiency in instrument flying, which resulted in spatial disorientation and impact with terrain.