Retelling a Sad Old Story

The NTSB, on 25 May 2023, released its final report on a 08 February 2020 accident in which a 1981 vintage Cessna Citation 501 (file phjoto, below), registration N501RG, was substantially damaged in an in-flight breakup in the vicinity of Fairmount, Georgia.

The flight was conducted under Part 91 of the Federal Aviation Regulations.

The aircraft’s left cockpit-seat was occupied by a 68-year-old, male, non-professional pilot. The right cockpit-seat was occupied by a 65-year-old, male, professional Commercial Pilot. The Citation’s cabin was occupied by two non-pilot passengers. All four individuals sustained fatal injuries.

The remarks section of the IFR flight-plan under which the accident flight was conducted set forth the undertaking was a training flight under the command of the right-seat Commercial Pilot.

The accident flight was scheduled to depart Atlanta, Georgia’s Falcon Field (FFC) at 09:30 EST and arrive at Nashville, Tennessee’s John C. Tune Airport (JWN) at approximately 10:22 EST. A second flight filed plan was to have seen the accident aircraft depart JWN at 10:30 EDT and return to FCC, landing in Atlanta at 11:19 EDT.

A review of germane air traffic control communications and radar data revealed the accident flight departed FFC at 09:49 EDT. An air traffic controller issued local weather information and instructed the flight to climb to 7,000-feet MSL. The controller related a PIREP for trace to light rime icing between 9,000 and 11,000-feet MSL—receipt of which was acknowledged by one of the Citation 501’s pilots. The controller then instructed the flight to climb to 10,000-feet MSL and turn right to a heading of 020-degrees.

The air traffic controller presently observed the accident aircraft on a northwesterly heading and asked the crew to verify they’d received his previous instruction.

One of the pilots responded, stating the aircraft was returning to a northwesterly heading of 320-degrees.

The controller issued instructions for the aircraft to remain at 10,000-feet MSL and inquired after any difficulties the flight may have been experiencing.

One of the pilots reported a problem with the aircraft’s autopilot.

The controller repeated his instruction for the aircraft to maintain 10,000-feet MSL and directed the flight crew to advise when they were able to accept a turn. The controller again inquired after difficulties aboard the aircraft and asked if the pilots required assistance. The absence of a timely response to his transmission compelled the controller to again inquire after difficulties aboard the flight and offer assistance.

A short time later, one of the Citation’s pilots responded, stating: “[we’re] Okay now.”

The accident aircraft subsequently climbed to 10,500-feet MSL, prompting the controller to again issue instructions for the crew to maintain 10,000-feet MSL.

Again, the controller inquired after difficulties and proffered assistance—to which one of the pilots responded in the affirmative, stating he and his counterpart were “playing with the autopilot” on account of it functioning abnormally.

The controller suggested the crew disengage the autopilot and fly the aircraft manually.

Thereafter, the accident aircraft descended to 9,000-feet MSL, prompting the controller to restate his 10,000-foot MSL altitude instruction and inquire after the possibility of the aircraft returning to FFC for purpose of resolving the autopilot issue on the ground.

One of the pilots requested a higher altitude in the hope of climbing into VFR-on-top conditions.

Advising the pilots that aircraft operating in the vicinity had reported IMC conditions at altitudes as high as 17,000-feet MSL, the controller approved a climb to 12,000-feet MSL and inquired after the Citation crew’s intentions.

One of the accident aircraft’s pilots stated the flight would continue to its filed JWN destination.

The controller issued instructions for the Citation to maintain a wings-level attitude, climb to 13,000-feet MSL, and change radio frequencies.

The flight reported on the new frequency at 11,500-feet climbing to 13,000-feet MSL on a 360-degree heading. The new air traffic controller issued instructions for the flight to climb to 16,000-feet MSL and inquired after the aircraft’s mechanical state.

One of the pilots reported problems with the Citation’s left-side attitude indicator, stating the jet was being flown by reference to the right-side flight instruments.

From 10:11:23 to 10:11:55 EST, the accident aircraft climbed from 12,000-feet MSL to 15,000-feet MSL.

The controller cleared the Citation to proceed direct JWN and inquired, as the aircraft climbed through 15,000-feet  MSL, if the flight were yet free of clouds.

Shortly thereafter, the aircraft entered a descending left turn.

Radar contact with the accident aircraft was lost at 10:13 EST.

The controller repeatedly attempted to contact the flight-crew, albeit to no avail.

No emergency call was received prior to the aircraft’s impact with the ground.

According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) airman records, the accident flight’s right seat Pilot In Command (PIC) held a Commercial Pilot certificate with ratings for airplane multi-engine land, airplane single-engine land, airplane single-engine sea, and instrument airplane. In addition, the individual held a Flight Instructor certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine, airplane multi-engine, and instrument airplane. The pilot was also type rated in the CE-500. The aviator’s second-class medical certificate had been issued 10 December 2019. According to his logbooks, the pilot had accumulated 5,924.4 total hours of flight time, 88.6 of which were in the Citation 501 aircraft. The pilot had logged a total of 573.4 hours of instrument time, 40.7 of which had been flown in the year prior to the accident.

The accident flight’s left seat pilot held a Private Pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine land and instrument airplane. His third-class medical certificate had been issued 10 January 2019, at which time he reported 805 hours of total flight experience. According to an email and training materials recovered from the Citation’s wreckage, the decedent was scheduled to attend flight training conducive to the acquisition of a CE-500 type rating.

The main part of the accident aircraft’s wreckage was located, inverted and partially-submerged, in a creek running through a woodland. The entirety of the aircraft’s wreckage was scattered in a manner and across an area consistent with an in-flight breakup. The debris path was some seven-thousand-feet in length along a 005-degree magnetic heading.

The accident aircraft’s autopilot computer was examined and disassembled. Anomalies preclusive of normal operation of the autopilot system were not observed.

The accident aircraft’s track data is consistent with the known effects of spatial disorientation, in-flight loss of control, and subsequent in-flight breakup. Ergo, the National Transportation Safety Board determined the accident’s probable cause(s) to be the pilots’ in-flight loss of aircraft control in freezing Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) due to spatial disorientation and task saturation.

Parties interested in learning more about the circumstances surrounding the described accident ought reference NTSB Accident Number: ERA20FA096.

FMI: www.ntsb.gov