Aircraft: Piper Cherokee. Injuries: 3 Fatal. Location: Aurora, Utah. Aircraft damage: Destroyed.
What reportedly happened: Family members notified the FAA 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 MSL.
The airplane crashed in a grove of trees just below a ridge line. Evidence at the accident site indicated that the airplane initially hit the trees on a southeasterly heading in a level attitude. The impact sheared off the left wing and the airplane caught fire and burned. There was snow in the area at the time of the crash.
The airplane was found relatively intact except for the separation of the left wing.
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 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 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.
Investigators determined 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 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 seven 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.
Investigators determined that two passengers initially survived the accident. They were found at the accident site wearing t-shirts and jeans.
It could not be determined whether any survival equipment was on board the airplane, but none was observed at the accident site. There was no evidence that the survivors attempted to make an overnight shelter. The temperatures at the accident site, 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.
Probable cause: 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.
NTSB Identification: WPR13FA061
This November 2012 accident report is provided by the National Transportation Safety Board. Published as an educational tool, it is intended to help pilots learn from the misfortunes of others.