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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