The non-instrument-rated pilot departed on a cross-country flight in the Piper PA 28-181 after topping off the fuel tanks.
Radar data and fuel records revealed that, about three hours later, the airplane stopped at an airport and was fueled. It subsequently departed and flew toward the destination airport for about 30 miles, but it then returned to the same airport to be fueled again. The airplane departed again and flew toward the destination airport.
Radar data showed that the airplane then climbed to 10,500 feet mean sea level, but that it subsequently began to descend. The last radar return showed the airplane at 7,100 feet msl.
The airplane was reported missing when it did not arrive at the destination. A search was conducted, and the airplane’s emergency locator transmitter signal was used to find the wreckage.
The airplane had hit rising terrain near Vaughn, N.M., in a level flight attitude, killing both people on board.
Marks and bending found on the propeller were consistent with the engine producing power at the time of impact.
Multiple weather sources showed that instrument meteorological conditions existed along the route of flight and that these were reported before the airplane departed.
Additionally, the freezing level was at the surface, and moderate turbulence was expected from the surface through 24,000 feet.
Pilots flying in the area around the time of the accident confirmed the presence of turbulence and/or mountain-wave conditions, and they indicated the presence of icing in the clouds with cloud tops near 9,000 feet. Additionally, no moonlight was present during the flight.
No record was found indicating that the pilot received a formal preflight weather briefing. If he had, he would have been made aware of the weather conditions along the route of flight.
Although the investigation could not determine what weather information the pilot might have reviewed before departure, his decision to conduct the flight in poor weather conditions was indicative of poor decision-making.
The evidence is consistent with the non-instrument-rated pilot flying at night in instrument conditions while likely attempting to fly under the clouds when the airplane hit rising terrain.
Toxicological testing of the pilot detected tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). However, the investigation could not determine if the pilot was impaired from the THC before or during the flight.
The NTSB determined the probable cause as the non-instrument-rated pilot’s continued flight into night instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in his failure to maintain clearance from terrain.
NTSB Identification: CEN15FA092
This December 2014 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.