On February 1, 2008, about 1748 eastern standard time, a Cessna Citation 525, N102PT, crashed in a wooded area in West Gardiner, Maine. The private/instrument-rated pilot and one passenger received fatal injuries; the airplane was destroyed. The flight was operated by a private individual under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 as a personal flight. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed and an instrument flight rules flight plan was filed for a flight from Augusta, Maine to Lincoln, Nebraska. The flight had originated from the Augusta State Airport about 1745.
When I heard the news about this crash and learned the pilot hailed from the Bay Area, I was fairly certain I had seen the pilot and her aircraft. And it turns out I was right.
A Citation piloted by a woman regularly departed Oakland on runway 33 and every time I saw her depart, I shook my head and wondered "Why?" Not only is Runway 33 only 3,372 feet long, a jet departing that runway violates the airport's noise abatement procedure which requests that all jet aircraft depart runway 29. But runway 29 is a much longer taxi from the North Field and one can only assume that this pilot wanted as little delay as possible. Runway 27R or 27L would require only a minute more of taxiing, they are significantly longer, and they would have been better, slightly more quiet, and certainly safer choices.
Since this pilot departed runway 33 regularly, more than once I thought about saying something to her over the ground frequency. But I regret to say I never did.
Representatives of the fixed base operator (FBO) at Augusta State Airport stated that the airplane was fueled and moved from the ramp into the FBO's hangar earlier that morning at the pilot's request. However, the hanger is utilized by a part 121 operator that provides service for that area. The operator canceled its 1630 flight due to the weather conditions and needed the hangar to house its airplane. The Citation was taken out of the hangar and moved back to the ramp area about that time. The pilot was informed of this possibility at time of the request and she stated that she understood that the other customer had priority over the hangar space.
Freezing rain and a cold-soaked aircraft are a deadly combination that pilots need to take seriously. It seems like departing without any ground de-icing in weather conditions that have resulted in a part 121 flight being cancelled would be unthinkable.
A person identifying herself as the pilot of N102PT called a flight service station at 1701 to file an instrument flight plan from Augusta, Maine to Lincoln, Nebraska, The pilot received a standard weather briefing for the flight at that time. Witnesses stated that the pilot arrived at the airport about 1715, at which time she and the passenger loaded their personnel effects into the airplane, returned a rental car, and paid for the fuel. She and the passenger then boarded the airplane. Shortly after, about 1730, the airplane's engines were started and the airplane was observed taxing. The FBO representative heard the pilot's announcements over the radio in the FBO. He also noticed the airplane was not on the taxiway, but on the grass area on the south side of the asphalt taxiway. At that time the ground was covered with snow and ice.
For the past hour and a half, the weather condition had turned from light snow to freezing rain, and ice was observed covering the cars in the parking lot. The FBO representative noted the pilot did not activate the airport's taxi and runways lights via the common airport frequency radio channel. It was observed that the airplane taxied through a ditch, which was covered with ice and snow. The airplane's engines were heard at a high rate of power about this time. It was later discovered that the airplane's left main tire broke through the ice and became stuck in the ditch. The airplane continued on the grass area after the high engine power was heard. The FBO representative heard the pilot announce the wrong runway (runway 35) that she was planning to depart from. The FBO representative turned on the runway and taxi lights after hearing the incorrect runway announcement. The pilot later announced a change of departure from runway 35 to runway 17, while the airplane was observed back taxing on runway 26 onto taxiway "C" Charlie. About 1745 the announcement for departure from runway 17 was heard; the FBO representative observed the departure at that time.
Any pilot who has flown for very long has experienced a bad day and some pilots have a three strikes rule. It goes something like this: You arrive to find something wrong, say your aircraft has a dead battery. Strike one. You have a mechanic replace the battery, but now you find that the weather is worse than forecast. In fact, the forecast seems to be way off. Strike two.You're ready to call Clearance Delivery when you realize that the GPS database in your plane is out of date. Strike three. You choose to cancel the flight.
After takeoff, the pilot contacted the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) and reported that she was at 1,000 feet, climbing to 10,000 feet. ATC requested the pilot to squawk ident on the transponder. Radar contact was made with the airplane when it was about 2 miles southwest of the Augusta State Airport. About one minute later, the pilot declared an emergency and stated, "We've got an attitude indicator failure". About seven seconds later, the pilot announced over the frequency they were not certain which way they were turning. Radar contact was lost shortly after that.
About 1749, local authorities received several 911 calls from residents reporting a possible airplane crash. A short time later, the airplane wreckage was located about 6 miles south-southwest of the Augusta State Airport. One witness stated to local law enforcement authorities that he saw an airplane fly overhead at a low altitude and moments later observed a large explosion off in the distance.
Let's say you are about to take flight, but you find yourself deep in the count. Maybe you are so committed, so determined to go, that you can't stop yourself. Maybe there's another pilot who's observed your situation, they key the mic and suggest "It looks like it's not your day. Why don't you delay your departure until the weather improves?"
Maybe that other pilot is you.