Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Controlled Flight into Terrain and Object: Cessna 172N Skyhawk, N734BS, fatal accident occurred June 15, 2018 in Rotan, Fisher County, Texas

Dallas Lee McMahan

Cessna 172N Skyhawk II, N734BS

The National Transportation Safety Board traveled to the scene of this accident.

Additional Participating Entities:

Federal Aviation Administration / Flight Standards District Office; Lubbock, Texas
Textron Aviation; Wichita, Kansas
Lycoming; Williamsport, Pennsylvania

Aviation Accident Factual Report - National Transportation Safety Board: https://app.ntsb.gov/pdf


Location: Rotan, TX
Accident Number: CEN18FA227
Date & Time: 06/15/2018, 1538 CDT
Aircraft: CESSNA 172N
Aircraft Damage: Destroyed
Defining Event: Controlled flight into terr/obj (CFIT)
Injuries: 2 Fatal
Flight Conducted Under: Part 91: General Aviation - Aerial Observation 

On June 15, 2018, at 1538 central daylight time, a Cessna 172N airplane, N734BS, was destroyed when it impacted power lines and terrain near Rotan, Texas. The pilot and passenger were fatally injured. The airplane was registered to and operated by Aero Photo as a Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91 aerial photography flight. Visual meteorological conditions existed at the time of the accident. No flight plan was filed. The flight originated from Midland Airpark (MDD), Midland, Texas, about 1331 and was destined for Spicewood Airport (88R), Spicewood, Texas.

According to information from the operator and data from a Garmin Aera 560 portable GPS device recovered at the accident site, the airplane departed 88R about 1020 to perform aerial photography missions. After completing several missions, the airplane landed at MDD about 1250. The airplane remained at the airport for about 40 minutes and departed about 1331. The airplane flew circling-type maneuvers near Midland, Odessa, and Lubbock, Texas, consistent with the reported photography missions. After the circling maneuver near Lubbock, the airplane traveled southeast on a straight path toward 88R, but the airplane impacted non-electrified power lines that crossed a canyon and subsequently impacted terrain.

The final recorded data point, at 1537, was about 3.3 nautical miles northwest of the accident site and showed the airplane's altitude at that time as 2,206 ft mean sea level (msl). According to Google Earth, the terrain elevation at that location was about 2,008 ft msl.

Dallas McMahon 

Pilot Information

Certificate: Commercial
Age: 38, Male
Airplane Rating(s): Multi-engine Land; Single-engine Land
Seat Occupied: Left
Other Aircraft Rating(s): None
Restraint Used:
Instrument Rating(s): Airplane
Second Pilot Present: No
Instructor Rating(s): Airplane Single-engine
Toxicology Performed: Yes
Medical Certification: Class 2 Without Waivers/Limitations
Last FAA Medical Exam: 04/18/2018
Occupational Pilot: Yes
Last Flight Review or Equivalent:
Flight Time:  5524 hours (Total, all aircraft), 5027 hours (Total, this make and model) 

The 38-year-old pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with airplane single-engine land, airplane multiengine land, and instrument airplane ratings. The pilot also held a second-class medical certificate dated April 18, 2018, without limitations. He reported 5,578 hours of total flight experience at that time. The pilot's flight logbook was not recovered during the investigation, but he completed a company pilot information form on May 7, 2018, which indicated that he had accumulated 5,523.6 hours of total flight experience, including 2.5 hours in multiengine airplanes, 5,026.9 hours in Cessna 172 airplanes, 902.4 hours during the preceding 12 months, and 242.3 hours during the preceding 90 days. The form also indicated that the pilot's most recent flight review was conducted on February 27, 2018. 

Aircraft and Owner/Operator Information

Aircraft Make: CESSNA
Registration: N734BS
Model/Series: 172N 
Aircraft Category: Airplane
Year of Manufacture: 1977
Amateur Built: No
Airworthiness Certificate: Normal
Serial Number: 17268731
Landing Gear Type: Tricycle
Seats: 4
Date/Type of Last Inspection: 08/31/2017, Annual
Certified Max Gross Wt.: 2299 lbs
Time Since Last Inspection:
Engines: 1 Reciprocating
Airframe Total Time: 7636 Hours as of last inspection
Engine Manufacturer: LYCOMING
ELT: Installed
Engine Model/Series: O-320-D2J
Registered Owner: AERO PHOTO
Rated Power: 160 hp
Operator: AERO PHOTO
Operating Certificate(s) Held: None

The airplane, serial number 17268731, was manufactured in 1977 and was powered by a Lycoming O-320-D2J engine, serial number RL-18668-39, rated to produce 160 horsepower. The airplane had fixed landing gear and accommodated four occupants, including the pilot.

Maintenance records indicated that the airplane's most recent annual inspection was completed on August 31, 2017, with a tachometer reading of 7,636 hours. The recent airplane maintenance entries did not indicate if the tachometer reading correlated to the airplane's total time in service. Likewise, the recent engine maintenance entries did not indicate if the tachometer reading correlated to the actual engine hours or the number of hours that the engine had accumulated since its most recent overhaul. 

Meteorological Information and Flight Plan

Conditions at Accident Site: Visual Conditions
Condition of Light: Day
Observation Facility, Elevation: SWW, 2380 ft msl
Distance from Accident Site: 30 Nautical Miles
Observation Time: 2035 UTC
Direction from Accident Site: 170°
Lowest Cloud Condition: Scattered / 7000 ft agl
Visibility:  10 Miles
Lowest Ceiling: None
Visibility (RVR):
Wind Speed/Gusts: 12 knots / 23 knots
Turbulence Type Forecast/Actual:
Wind Direction: 140°
Turbulence Severity Forecast/Actual:
Altimeter Setting: 29.91 inches Hg
Temperature/Dew Point: 34°C / 13°C
Precipitation and Obscuration: No Obscuration; No Precipitation
Departure Point: Midland, TX (MDD)
Type of Flight Plan Filed: None
Destination: Spicewood, TX (88R)
Type of Clearance: None
Departure Time: 1331 CDT
Type of Airspace: Class G 

At 1535, the recorded weather conditions at Avenger Field Airport, Sweetwater, Texas, which was about 30 nautical miles south of the accident site, were wind from 140° at 12 knots, gusting to 23 knots; 10 statute miles visibility; scattered clouds at 7,000 ft above the ground; temperature 34°C; dew point 13°C; and altimeter setting 29.91 inches of mercury. 

Wreckage and Impact Information

Crew Injuries: 1 Fatal
Aircraft Damage: Destroyed
Passenger Injuries: 1 Fatal
Aircraft Fire: None
Ground Injuries: N/A
Aircraft Explosion: None
Total Injuries: 2 Fatal
Latitude, Longitude: 32.911944, -100.540833 

The power lines that the airplane struck were suspended from wooden poles that were about 20 ft tall and were on the peaks of the ridges forming the canyon. The power lines were estimated to be about 130 ft above the floor of the canyon. The airplane came to rest inverted about 900 ft from the power lines, and the accident site was about 50° from where the power lines crossed the center of the canyon. Te power lines were not marked.

The aft fuselage was broken near the baggage compartment, and the entire aft fuselage and the tail were bent over the inverted fuselage. Both wings appeared intact and still attached to the fuselage and wing struts. The ailerons and flaps remained attached to the wings. The tail surfaces were intact, and the rudder and elevator remained attached. The engine was separated from the airplane with the propeller still attached to the engine. A large portion of power line cable had wrapped around the crankshaft an estimated 15 times aft of the propeller. Access to the accident site was limited due to the topography, and the position of the wreckage was not suitable for a detailed on-scene examination, but subsequent examination of the airplane revealed no anomalies that would have precluded normal operation. 

Medical And Pathological Information

According to the autopsy performed by South Plains Forensic Pathology in Lubbock, the pilot's cause of death was blunt injuries of the head and torso.

Toxicology testing performed by the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Forensic Sciences Laboratory identified, in the pilot specimens, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana) and its metabolites as well as cocaine and its metabolites. Specifically, THC was found at 0.006 µg/ml in the pilot's cavity blood specimens as were two THC inactive metabolites, 11-nor-9-carboxy-delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and 11-hydroxy-delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. All three compounds were also found in the pilot's urine specimens. Cocaine was detected in the pilot's urine specimens as were its inactive metabolites benzoylecgonine, anhydroecgonine methyl ester, and ecgonine methyl ester. These inactive metabolites were also identified in the pilot's cavity blood specimens; cocaine was not detected in those specimens.

Tests And Research

In addition to the Garmin Aera 560 portable GPS device, a GoPro Hero 4 action camera was located at the accident site and was sent to the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) Vehicle Recorder Laboratory for data extraction. The device contained 181 files consisting of 177 still images and 4 videos. Seven of the still images had timestamps consistent with the accident flight, and all those images were taken from the front right seat of the airplane. Several of those images showed the airplane operating at low altitudes near geographical features such as canyons and plateaus. The final image had a timestamp of 1540:50. For that image, the camera was pointed directly ahead of the airplane through the front windscreen, and the airplane was flying toward an area of small canyons that were depicted in previous images. The airplane was in a moderate left bank about level with the tops of small canyons that surrounded the airplane. In the distance, on top of a small canyon to the right, a wooden pole structure was visible, and the orientation of the structure indicated that the suspended power lines stretched in front of the airplane's flightpath. On the left side of the image, the suspended power lines were visible at a similar altitude as that of the airplane.

Additional Information

FAA regulations (14 CFR 91.13) prohibit the operation of "an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another." Furthermore, except when necessary for takeoff or landing, the regulations (14 CFR 91.119) require pilots to maintain an altitude of at least 1,000 ft above the highest obstacle within a 2,000-foot horizontal radius of the aircraft in congested areas except during takeoff or landing. In uncongested areas, pilots must maintain an altitude of at least 500 ft above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, an aircraft cannot be operated closer than 500 ft to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.

An Instagram user provided the NTSB with screen-captured video recordings that were reportedly made by the passenger in the accident airplane and uploaded to Instagram's "My Story" feature. One of the passenger's videos, titled "Just Checking the Livestock" was taken from the right window of the airplane, panning forward to the windscreen. The airplane's estimated altitude at that time was 30 ft above the ground. The final "My Story" video was taken from the right window of the airplane. At that time, the airplane was traveling at a high ground speed, and the airplane's altitude was estimated to be less than 100 ft above the ground. The geography in the area consisted of small hills and rock formations.

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