The commercial pilot and his wife departed on a visual flight rules cross-country flight to their home airport. About 46 nautical miles from the destination airport, the pilot requested an instrument flight rules clearance and was subsequently cleared for an instrument landing system (ILS) approach at the destination airport.
GPS data indicated that the Piper PA 24-260 followed a straight course with minimal variation during its cruise flight in a manner consistent with use of the autopilot. The airplane’s course movements became more erratic when the airplane neared the destination airport in Santa Rosa, California, which suggests that he began to hand-fly the airplane.
A combination of radar data, GPS data, and air traffic control audio showed that the pilot complied with the controller’s instructions.
After he intercepted the glideslope, he maintained a shallow descent rate until the final approach fix. He subsequently crossed the final approach fix 1,000′ above the intercept altitude on a heading track to the right of the localizer.
The tower controller reported multiple deviations over the radio to the pilot, but he did not make appropriate corrections.
Radar data showed the plane enter progressively steeper descent rates after passing the final approach fix, and it began to deviate to the left of the localizer. In the final moments of the flight, the plane turned to the right about 50°, crossed the localizer, and then immediately began a 60° steep left turn at an approximate 1,200-fpm descent rate.
Debris path signatures indicated the airplane was in a high-speed, steep left turn with a nose-down attitude when it hit a field about 1.5 nautical miles south of the runway approach end. Both the pilot and his wife died in the crash.
The proximity of the accident site to the final GPS data point and the similarity between the impact signatures and the track shown by the last few GPS data points indicates that the last data points closely represent the airplane’s final movements before impact.
Examination of the wreckage and of engine analyzer data did not reveal any evidence of preimpact anomalies with the airframe or engine.
Circumferential scoring from the gyros was found on the case of the heading indicator and both attitude indicators, which indicates that these instruments were likely functioning normally at the time of impact.
The pilot obtained weather information from an online service about 24 hours before the flight, however the forecasts he received were not valid at the time of his departure.
In his communication to an Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) controller, he asked, “what are they doing for approaches?” which indicated that he was aware of possible instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) at the destination airport.
The pilot’s audio transmissions to ARTCC did not indicate that he had received current Airport Terminal Information System weather.
Further, the ARTCC controller did not provide the pilot with the current weather as required by FAA procedure, and the airport tower controller had not been disseminating pilot reports, also required by FAA procedure.
The pilot’s flight instructors commended his aeronautical decision-making skills, however the investigation was unable to confirm if the pilot obtained current weather and if knowledge of the low-visibility weather conditions would have altered his decision to continue the flight despite his desire to return home that night.
Two months before the accident, he completed an instrument proficiency check and made a night flight to fulfill the night currency requirement. Other than these two events, he had no recent instrument or night flight experience.
Further, his flight records did not show any evidence that he had completed a flight in night IMC in nearly three years.
Given his lack of recent experience in night IMC, he was most likely overwhelmed by the complexity of hand-flying the airplane on an ILS approach in night IMC.
Once he crossed the final approach fix, he doubled his descent rate to correct for his high crossing altitude and then deviated from the localizer course line. The airplane’s final movements suggest that he likely lost control of the airplane during the large heading adjustment he made to correct his course and was not able to regain control.
Probable cause: The pilot’s failure to maintain airplane control during an instrument approach in night instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in a collision with terrain. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s lack of recent experience in night instrument meteorological conditions.
NTSB Identification: WPR16FA059
This January 2016 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.