The non-instrument-rated private pilot was making a 220-nautical mile (nm) cross-country flight under visual flight rules over mountainous terrain in dark night instrument meteorological conditions.
Radar data revealed that the Cessna 172 was flying in a northwest direction, proceeding en route between 9,100′ and 9,900′ mean sea level (msl).
The last radar return, which occurred about an hour after takeoff, showed the plane was about 80 nm northwest of the departure airport and about three nm southeast of the accident site near Panguitch, Utah.
A short time later the plane hit remote, snow-covered, mountainous terrain on a southwest heading at an elevation of 7,350′. All three on board the plane died in the crash.
The changes in heading and altitude between the end of the radar data and the impact suggest the pilot began maneuvering the airplane after radar contact was lost.
A survey of the accident site revealed that the damage to the airplane and the linear debris path was consistent with controlled flight into terrain.
All airplane components necessary for flight were accounted for at the accident site. Additionally, a post-accident examination of the airframe and engine did not reveal evidence of any mechanical anomalies that would have precluded normal operation.
Weather surveillance radar revealed an area of snow showers over the accident site, and an infrared satellite image depicted a band of low stratiform clouds over the accident site with tops near 14,000′ msl. The cloud bases were estimated at 8,700′ msl.
A meteorological impact statement for the area warned of marginal visual flight rules to instrument flight rules conditions in snow showers.
Dark nighttime conditions existed with no illumination of the moon at the time of the accident.
The area surrounding the accident site was uninhabited, and there would have been no ground lighting visible to the pilot.
It is likely the plane encountered instrument meteorological conditions (the band of clouds), and the pilot descended and turned to exit the cloud layer but was unable to establish visual contact with the ground before hitting terrain in the dark nighttime conditions.
There was no record of the pilot getting an official weather briefing. If he had gotten a briefing, he would have been told “VFR not recommended” and this may have prevented the accident.
Probable cause: The pilot’s continued visual flight rules flight into instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in controlled flight into terrain. Contributing to the accident were the pilot’s inadequate preflight weather planning and his poor decision-making.
NTSB Identification: WPR17FA065
This February 2017 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.