“A Random Act of God…”

August 5, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

“It was a random act of God for that plane to have zeroed into the smallest house around.” So said the owner of a vacation rental property in Gearheart, Oregon, a seaside community west of Portland, as quoted in media reports. Details are sketchy at this writing but it appears that a rental Cessna 172 took off from the Seaside airport with two people on board in the early morning around 0630.

As is usual for that part of the world, it was foggy. The Cessna crashed into the house about a mile from the airport and a three alarm fire resulted. So far, there are three survivors with injuries and three confirmed dead that were inside the house. The pilot and passenger are presumed dead.

Ground fatalities caused by light aircraft accidents are exceedingly rare, which is small comfort to those affected but it helps the rest of us understand the real risk. It’s way too early to cite specifics but here are some points for pilots to consider. An IMC takeoff requires thorough preparation and concentration. Close to the ground there are few options.

First, is the decision to go itself. Suppose the engine quits. It’s rare but it does happen – now what? How much ceiling and visibility would you like to have—just in case? Every hundred feet of additional ceiling yields maybe another ten seconds of maneuvering time to avoid obstacles. Likewise, forward visibility is at a premium. What if the primary flight display or the vacuum pump just packed it in? (See last week’s blog.) Are we ready for partial panel before even settling into the routine of normal instrument flight?

Statistically, it is more likely for the pilot to have a lapse or become distracted at a critical time. These are normal human failings and early climb is the place to be on guard. Nothing else matters but keeping the wings level and a positive climb flight attitude. Spatial disorientation is always a possibility for a variety of reasons. Open doors, open windows, ATC communications, passenger distractions, anything that takes away from gaining critical altitude is irrelevant.

I’ve had both lapses and distractions in my flying over the years and have learned from each one that there are better ways to deal with them then I did at the time. I suspect most of us have had a few along the way.

There is always tremendous pressure to speculate on accidents like this. In this case, mechanical or instrument malfunction, pilot lapse, spatial disorientation or incapacitation are all possibilities. I’ve been wrong way too many times to repeat that mistake.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • R. Jeff

    The “cause” was taking off in the first place in poor wx conditions single engine. Plain and simple. If u aren’t there it can’t happen!

  • Al S.

    It is unfortunate that pilots do not have a vision into the future to prevent such tragedy. My deepest sympathy to all individuals involved. This article once again proves that religion and politics should remain seperate issues…everything is too subjective…and opinion based. Less decisions are required in the air if more are made on the ground. To all……fly safe!

  • Karen Fenton

    Let’s forget arguments about “acts of God” and blame, and look and pray for another family Right now, in Oregon, all eyes are on those in the house and plane. What about the widow, and two children of the pilot? Yes, he probably made a big mistake..I’m instrument rated and know the coast…but his family is undoubtedly suffering loss as well as guilt. I’m not sure that any clear judgement can ever be made on this accident, given the little that was left of the aircraft. On the surface it looks like the pilot made a great misjudgement, but the best thing we as an aviation community can do is support the families, and look seriously at our own flying decisions. Complacency can be a terrible thing, and the more we fly, the more we fall subject to it!

  • Brett Christiano

    Just a Question? Why do we always blame God for such tragedies. (“It was an act of God”) There is more than one spiritual power in this world !

  • http:[email protected] Steven J. Drake

    It is sad day for every one who sits in the left seat. I am sure that the pilot who flew into the home never,ever dreamed of being a statistic. While I am a believer, God never pushed the power lever forward. Actually, God was probably whispering, asking , if you really wanted to meet him face to face today. Whether you believe in God or not, all of us still hear that still small voice. Call it conscious, God, or whatever. May I suggest we all listen to that voice, and fly safely. May God deal gently with all involved.

  • http://blog.aopa.org D. Osborn

    Do all letters get automatically published, or is there a screening process?

    I think the religious discussion should not be here. It is hard to learn when people are fighting another topic.

  • Supinie

    When I was a new pilot, my dad, who was also a pilot, told me that “you never HAVE to be anywhere.” Thirty years later, I still think about that advice when making a go-no go decision.

  • http://AOPA D Brewer

    Anger arises from fear. There is a lot of anger on both sides of the god arguement. It realy is logical here because people died and we dont know why. Lets let go of the anger and talk about airplanes. I like what an old mountain guide told me up on the middle fork of the Salmon river, ” These mountains can kill you,but they are not evil.” We all know how hard it is to hand fly in IMC. That plane probably did not have an auto pilot and spatial dissoreintation happens fast. I was with a pilot that was texting on his cell phone ( 100,000$ fine if they catch you by the way) his piloting skill went sour quickly! Flying is a big responsibility,if you are not on your A game dont go! Freedom comes with a responsibility clause. Enjoy it responsibly! Lets live and post comments like there is a god and he gives points for kindness and gratitude. If it turns out there isn’t ,then we havn’t lost much My heart goes out to these families

  • Michael

    God gives man free will. This pilot chose for himself and his unfortunate passenger, to depart into the given conditions. His own decision lead to the results. In my opinion, an act of God could be weather, or other natural circumstance. Was it an act of God for this aircraft to zero in on this particular house? Absolutely not. It was chance. The airplane was certainly going to hit something whether it was the smallest house or not.
    I have to agree with Brewer, let’s let the pilot take responsibilty for his decisions and not blame God for what is truly a tragic situation. I am a 1200+ hour commercial pilot with an instrument and multi-engine rating. Earlier this year I was flying with another pilot on a part 135 freight haul. I was the flying pilot. I took extra precautions prior to our departure because of the low ceiling and visibility. We entered IMC at a little less than 200 feet. About 10 seconds into the clouds, my co-pilot took of his headset, tossed it over his yolk and proceeded to dial his cell phone in an attempt to contact his wife before we climbed too high to get reception. All the while, I was receiving climb and departure vectors from ATC and configuring for the climb. I was extremely distracted by my co-pilots actions and became a little disoriented. Within a few seconds we were decending at 600 FPM in a left turn. At about 500 feet AGL I leveled the wings and put the airplane back in a shallow climb. I have a couple hundred hours of time in the clouds and couldn’t believe I let this happen. It is very easy to get distracted even if you are experienced.
    Let’s give the pilot the bennefit of doubt and let the NTSB and the FAA figure out what happened. Meanwhile, as pilots, let’s stay proficient and trained so we might continue to be the best we can be at operating our aircraft in a safe and efficient manner. Flying is huge responsibilty.

  • Andrew Davidson

    echoing Steven Drake:

    Both believers and atheists may benefit from a divine copilot. Glenn Metcalf wrote beautifully about his father still taping on the panel. It makes less difference whether or not Jesus will take the wheel, than whether or not we can free ourselves of the pressures of the moment to see from an exalted perch.

  • Raphael

    It’s possible that the pilot believed that no matter what happened he would turn out alright. Most of us are read or learned that poor ADM results in a big crap. A lot of you have made the best possible go/no-go decision about death. Last I checked that’s where we are all headed. I’d hate to wait to find out what God thinks of me. I’m glad Jesus Christ knows who I am.

  • Doug Merrill

    The title of “A Random Act of God” is somewhat provocative in that it can be interpreted in many different ways, many of which have been referenced in the above comments. Initially I was angered by the title but that is probably because that is one of my emotional reactions to the incredible tragic sadness. There are many stages of grief and I think some of these comments are in reaction to the various stages that each of us go through whether it be denial, anger, pleading, rationalization, acceptance and many more.

    Two of the children who died in the house were Sammy and Grace who attended St. Anne’s School in Denver. Their sister Elizabeth who was in the house survived also attended St. Anne’s. St. Anne’s is an incredible school that is diversified religiously, ethnically and racially yet one thing that unites all of us who are a part of this incredible St. Anne’s family is love and respect for ourselves, our community and each other. My son graduated from St. Anne’s in 2007 and was fortunate to have gone there for 9 years.

    I have ben a pilot for 37 years (commercial, instrument, glider and aerobatic) and have never had such powerfully intense diverse emotions and reactions to this tragically sad event.

    From an intellectual perspective, I am hopeful that many pilots will learn from this incident so as to maximize safety. There are many intelligent comments of waiting, of responsibility of the “no go” flight, and taking off in low ceiling environments to mention but a few.

    Sammy and Grace’s father, Fred, their mother, Marie, and their sister, Elizabeth survived the accident and will be tested and pressed to every belief they have ever experienced and many in which they have yet to experience. Although they are fortunate to belong to an incredible St. Anne’s family, a tragedy as substantive as this may welcome the prayers of extended community (you) for those who are injured, those who have died and those who survived.

    I pray that there is no survivors’ guilt (I fell into that trap for too long), that God will grant them the strength to grieve, and to find peace. Perhaps as a general aviation community, we can use our “God” or Higher Power for prayer for the Masoudi/Johnson and Jackson/Reimann families as well as the pilot and passenger’s families. Perhaps as the title making reference to God, prayer might be one suggestion to the many responses received.

  • Michael S. Pierce

    Fate and a Fine Day

    a fine day and following wind,
    when you’ve someplace to go.

    For this is a gift of Fate,
    a jealous mover,
    who can exact
    powerful vengeance
    on the ungrateful
    or the disrespectful.

  • Kevin Swartz

    My sympathies to the berieved. Sad that it takes this sharpen our own skills. To the athiests, Go study what 2008 means. Is it just a number or what does it count back to? Back at zero was the time of Jesus’ and before that was known as BC and numbers counted backward from zero to a few thousand years to creation. Because of the order (not chance )of creation, we have zulu and standard time and there is always twenty four hours and some minutes every day,and every four years it adds up to an extra day. Never changes. If physics and chance cause my compass to always point north then I’m scared to fly because it could gradually evolve toward the east or west . Just some unchanging facts to ponder for us. Oh yes the sun which faithfully comes up every morning which ALEX refered to. It is 93 million miles away and any closer or further would be devastating for us and the earth. Just chance and not evidence of a higher power? Are you kidding me?

  • B Earnest

    Are you kidding me?
    Upon further study I didn’t find jesus at the end of the rainbow or 2008.
    Even your fairy tale book scholars debate over what scientists find in goelogy and conclude there are more than a few thousand years “BC”. In just the last few hundred years man has changed enough to support the fact that time changes the biology of living things. Your best fairy tale scholars say the universe is expanding and that is how they try to explain creation only being a few thousand years back. Never changes? Why are we finding evidence of water on other planets IN THE PAST? Your brilliant scientists will change their story again just like they always have in the past as more discovery is made.
    Take courage, the magnetic compass is still pointing sort of North but that too changes with time. 8 feet a year last time I checked. You won’t be here to see the end of that story,and hpoefully your offspring won’t be afraid of the truth.

  • http:[email protected] Robert Kennel

    I bet the witness who made the comment about act of god would change it to one in a million after reading all the blogs. Enjoyed all the comments.

  • Kenneth Dattilio

    Using the title ” A Random Act of God…” is just as stupid as the idiot from Gearheart, Oregon that said it in the first place. You both are no different than the two idiots that takeoff in the Cessna 172.

  • sam ferguson

    I have been flyin for almost 3 years now with my priv and IFR. I am amazed by the immaturity and irresponsibility of the flying crowd. I have seen planes buzz my busy uncontrolled airfield,(KOCF) I even had a baron take off right in my face using the opposing runway and ignoring the radio. I see no sense in burning holes in the sky, or flying around for a $200 hamburger: its a waste of gas. To take off in IMC without being aware of the potential consequneces, is just plain stupid and irresponisble. God asks us to be responsible, and if we arent, we, and others are going to be hurt, harmed, or killed. God is Love, Christ taught us that, and if we ignore it, it is going to be painful for ourselves, our loved ones and others.

    I think GA needs to take a hard look at it spurpose: maybe in the past it could be wasteful, and just a fun hobby, etc, but I am going to bet they better be ready to evolve into something different.

    My two cents.

  • Mike Allen

    Bruce, many congratulations on provoking a snowstorm of responses; if quantity = quality, you have succeeded!! However, if focus = quality, your respondants get a C–.

    I’m sufficiently cynical about many things, that my smile broadened in direct proportion to my progress through these posts.

    Your fundamental point is that IMC takeoffs are dangerous. I totally agree! I agree so much, that I refuse to teach them to my instrument students. Instead, I teach my instrument students that they should not attempt to takeoff until Wx at departure airport is at least equal to their personal (not published) minimums on a published approach at the departure airport, that the student and aircraft is proficient and current to shoot!

    To those students who say, “But what should I do if I have to depart?”, I respond, “Make sure your will is current. Why – on your own admission – do you have to die today?”

    To those who say,”Well, I will just find another Instructor who will teach me how”, I respond, “Goodbye, I wish you well”.

    My heart goes out to the parents and grandparents of the children that were killed by this pre-decisioned stupidity. I believe that the pilot community owes a sufficiently large debt of mature responsibility to the non-pilot community, that we should never make decisions about attempting to defy gravity, that create this amount of risk to the non-pilot community. Their trust in our ability to keep them (unconsciously) safe, demands more from us.


    EVERYBODY..Please understand one thing the airport was 300 to 500 ft ceiling. Aircraft take off in this all the time. The air space actually allows for departure clear of the clouds(G). The problem was that just a mile to the west was fog to the surface(zero/zero). I think that he was planning to fly VFR on top and maybe had engine trouble (water in his fuel or carb ice) when he was on top and he tried to circle down through the cloud layer over the beach away from coastal homes. The problem was that he decended into a fog bank and lost situational awarness(the impact was less than a block from the beach). I bet conversations with the owner of the a/c or friends of the pilot…they will tell you he just popped up through the cloud layer w/o IFR clearance frequently. I have known pilots that just say “I found a little hole in the overcast to get through” when you know they were in the clouds. Also lets drop the issue about GOD being responcible it was the pilot and only the pilot. I know Greg Marshall that said that to the media, I will tell him about how much fuss everybody has made about that statement. I think he was trying with the best of his abilities to console the hurting families.

  • Voodoobones

    This is what we’ve become? As pilots we should know better than to lose sight of the facts.
    First off, let’s stop arguing dogma and remember there are a lot of hurting people out there because of this accident.
    Second, let us stop pointing fingers at people involved with this tragedy. We don’t have all the facts.
    And last but not least, let’s try to learn from this. There is a lot of lessons we can and will be able to learn from this.

    Remember, we are pilots. Let’s think like one. Dumb move or not, we lost a brother.

  • Frank Minich

    Is there a viable alternative to the vacuum-driven attitude gyro?
    Maybe something completely electrical?
    I don’t mean that the vacuum-driven one would be replaced, necessarily, but something to offer better redundancy would seem appropriate.

  • Tom DeMarino

    While I know from 17 years in aircraft accident investigation not to even suppose that I can surmise the actual cause of the accident from the outside looking in, I do see a possible problem with training and perception, some of which is reflected in the remarks presented here. Yes, IMC takeoffs are a greater risk. Yes, VFR takeoffs into IMC are a great risk. What is missing here is the facility. Seaside Airport is NOT an IFR airport. Its infrastructure is strictly that of a utility runway with very large trees very near the runway, and many obstacles on three sides of the airport. Something I have never heard espoused in training over forty years of flying is the runway design criteria. The 150/5300-13 document that the FAA publishes on airport design establishes some very strict rules on what minima, if any, can be accomplished based on the distances and heights of obstacles around the airport. This is based on the prudent execution of instrument procedures, including takeoffs, but gives thought to the flight technical error (FTE) of the pilot (i.e., how much error is inherent in flying the aircraft on instruments.) No one should have ever been taking off IFR from that airfield, period, but the pilot was an experienced CFI, with lots of flight time and plenty of time out of that airport. I do wonder if pilots as a group, we are not missing a key element of training that could have prevented this accident. Just something to think about.

  • Eric Olsen

    I have been an IFR pilot for many years with thousands of hours. I fly IFR regularly in Oregon and Washington and depart in low visability situations. I own a T210. I stay current. Personally, I trust that my engine will operate- some people do not make that assumption and change their departure criteria accordingly. I respect that. I contact Seattle Center on the ground obtain a void time and depart IFR climbing into the clouds. It is clear that this pilot departed VFR with mountains close on the east, the cold pacific on the west and tall trees and fog between. This was class G air space wtih one mile visability and clear of clouds. The departure was technically legal. I personally would not have a problem departing IFR with low ceilings but departing VFR skimming along the ground hoping to find a hole to pop through on the Oregon coast is playing Russian Roulette and shame on any pilot dead or alive that would take such an action. A lot of people are saying wait for the facts wait for the facts. Even if there was an engine problem the odds were stacked against this pilot for departing VFR in these conditions. Of course I feel bad for the pilot and victims. I am certain whereever he is he is kicking himself for a stupid decison.

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