A few questions in SD

May 7, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg
9D0 sectional and turbine inset

                                      MEF 2,700 feet

There was a tragic accident in South Dakota last week when a PA-32R (Piper Lance) collided with a wind turbine. There aren’t that many people in South Dakota, so the loss of four prominent young men in the cattle business is really unfortunate. Losing anyone in an aircraft accident is unfortunate.

An accident chain seems clearly present here, but the usual caveat is that this is preliminary and there might be a completely different causal factor:

1) Fatigue? The accident is estimated to have occurred shortly after 9 p.m. CDT. Based on distance from the departure point in Texas, the flight would have been approaching four hours or more depending on headwinds. That means departure was made at the end of a long day and facing difficult weather. Better to leave a couple of hours earlier?

2) Weather? According to the NTSB preliminary report “The closest official weather observation station was…Pierre, South Dakota, 37 miles west of the accident location. The routine aviation weather report…, issued at 2124,..wind 010 degrees at 19 knots, visibility 10 miles, sky condition broken clouds at 1,000 feet, overcast at 1,600 feet, temperature 06 degrees Celsius (C), dew point temperature 05 degrees C, altimeter 29.37 inches, remarks, ceiling variable between 800 and 1,200 feet.”  Technically it was VMC but this really is IFR weather. Why no IFR flight plan?

3) Low Level? The impact with the wind turbine was about 300 agl. The tower itself was measured at 215 agl or 316 agl depending on which symbol you choose. The blades may extend well above that. Tower symbols are charted south of the airport about 10 miles. Why fly that low…to avoid ice perhaps, or to maintain ground contact?

From what we know now, subject to change, there was no IFR flight plan filed even though the pilot was instrument rated. Don’t know if he was current. There was no reported communication with ATC. The weather system was widespread, so it’s unlikely that the pilot was surprised by the rain and fog. The temperature/dew point spread tells the story. It’s a “fur piece” from Texas to South Dakota especially at low altitude and bucking a 30-knot headwind. There is no indication they stopped for fuel, so could fuel exhaustion be an issue?

Armchair quarterbacking would say “controlled flight into tower (CFIT)” and VFR into IMC. Possible fatigue, possible fuel shortage, definite low ceiling and visibility, definite dark night, definite towers and apparently a strong desire to get home after a weekend in Texas: If all that is as it appears, it’s a risky proposition.

TAP—The Air Safety Institute has a Terrain Avoidance Plan Safety Brief that will keep you out of the rough. In this case the absolute bare minimum altitude for VFR is charted at 2,700 feet msl (Maximum Elevation Figure) with the tops of the turbines around 2,500 feet msl. Personally, I’d add several hundred feet to that.

The question none of us will be able to answer is why? Those that we lost can no longer explain. Would sure like to better understand the human mind. Too many smart, capable people are lost this way.

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Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Duane

    These cases are painful to review, knowing the final outcome for the four souls on board and their families. So many things are wrong with the picture that we have so far of this accident, in terms of weather, time of evening, length of flight, lack of communication with ATC, and the fact that VFR flight was pushed into IMC (ceilings as low as 800 ft reported). We seem to have a situation where a lot of risk factors were allowed to become marginal or worse, yet the flight continued on. Get-there-itis seems to have claimed four more victims.

    I shudder to think about this accident … I have flown over quite a few of those monstor wind turbine farms in West Texas that go on for mile after mile, when it was marginal VFR (2,500-3,500 ft ceilings, daytime, and good visibility) … and seeing those massive rotating blades below my aircraft … I remember the little pucker factor I felt, thinking “Boy, what if I have an engine out here and I have to maneuver around all those big rotating things with a dead stick?” It’s certainly no place to be at night in or near IMC under a low ceiling.


    AOPA needs to push the FAA to list the height of any wind turbine as the full height, including blade sweep. If there was a building that had a removable antenna, FAA would list its height with antenna installed. Listing the height of a wind turbine, but not including the blade sweep is idiotic and dangerous.

  • Dave H

    The challenge is getting the educational message to the people who need it. The problem is that some of the people who need it most don’t know they need it! We can’t be sure, but it seems pretty likely that this pilot was scud running over a remote area at night, near or below the MEF. How do we make sure that every pilot cringes at the mere thought of doing something like that? Unfortunately, we can’t regulate common sense and good judgment. Think how much better life would be if we could.

  • pilotman

    The pilot had picked up one passenger at a small airport near the crash site, and was probably planning on dropping off that same passenger as they were returning. that airport has no instrument approaches. That could very well be why an instrument flight plan hadn’t been filed The final destination about 40 miles northwest of the crash site had two published approaches. Icing should not have been a worry that evening. Everything is speculation, but it is entirely feasible that the reasons listed above are why VFR into IMC claimed another planeload ..

  • chuck l

    Also not mentioned is the fact the pilot was also a spray pilot. Could his experience with that have had anything to do with his decision to scud run? Just another factor added to the mix. There are way too many towers and windmills to even think about flying low with limited visibility these days.
    My family knew one of the passengers who was a great guy and tremendous cattleman. He picked up my son and grandson and a friend and me at a local airport and drove us to his ranch, which was near the crash site, to show us his cattle last year. He will be sorely missed due to an accident that shouldn’t have happened.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Neil…Very good point. We’ll check on that – makes perfect sense.

    Chuck, we discuss these tragedies in clinical terms but the human loss and pain are phenomenal. The responsibility of the PIC is real and as wonderful as our time machines are, we should never forget their capacity to inflict massive damage.

    Your comment regarding low flight with windmill and towers is spot on.

  • Tom Khosrovani

    I am not a high time pilot, but i have read a lot of accident reports. This one is a common one, many reports that are similar . The low altitude flying seems to always be a consistent factor. i learned to fly in Van Nuys ca., My instructor routinely pounded into my head that the only time you can fly low is when you are in the traffic pattern. I cannot find fault with this advice. With this in mind I am a little puzzled as I watch Ian fly the 172 at 1300 msl down the Hudson river. Sure it is indeed breathtaking, but where are you going to land if you lose your engine? iIn between the skyscrapers? Or ditch in the Hudson river ? I have never been to New York city , but it appears the emergency landing options are limited.

  • Bramm P.

    This crash happened about 10 miles away from my family farm. It was foggy out, and the visibility was extremely low. I don’t understand either why the pilot was flying so low, some say his plane wasn’t licensed to fly above the clouds, and the fog was low to the ground. Personally, I would’ve known the wind towers were around and made sure I was higher than I should’ve been, even though that meant flying above the clouds.