Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Cessna T182T Turbo Skylane, N157RC: Fatal accident occurred September 27, 2020 in Santa Barbara, California

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed.

The National Transportation Safety Board did not travel to the scene of this accident.

Additional Participating Entities: 
Federal Aviation Administration / Flight Standards District Office; Van Nuys, California 
Textron Aviation; Wichita, Kansas

Location: Santa Barbara, CA
Accident Number: WPR20LA319
Date & Time: September 27, 2020, 07:03 Local 
Registration: N157RC
Aircraft: Cessna T182 Injuries: 1 Fatal
Flight Conducted Under:

On September 27, 2020, at 0703 Pacific daylight time, a Cessna T182T airplane, N157RC, sustained substantial damage when it was involved in an accident near Santa Barbara, California. The pilot, the sole occupant, was fatally injured. The airplane was operated by the pilot as a Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91 personal cross-country flight.

The flight departed Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA), Santa Barbara, California, for a crosscountry flight to the Truckee-Tahoe Airport (TRK), Truckee, California.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the airplane departed runway 15L, established radio contact with Los Angeles Center departure control and turned a heading of 255 degrees with a climb to 8,000 ft above ground level (agl). The airplane then turned to the north, followed by a turn to the east and a rapid descent. Radio and radar contact were lost, and an alert notification was issued by the FAA. Wreckage and an oil slick were located approximately 2 miles from SBA in the Pacific Ocean by the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department. There were no mayday calls received by ATC from the pilot. 

Reported weather at SBA at the time of the accident was overcast skies at 900 ft and visibility 7 miles.

Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department requested assistance from Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Dive unit to assist in the search for the pilot and airplane. The estimated depth of the wreckage was 200 ft. On Thursday, October 1, 2020, the pilot, and airplane were located and recovered.

Aircraft and Owner/Operator Information

Aircraft Make: Cessna 
Registration: N157RC
Model/Series: T182 T 
Aircraft Category: Airplane
Amateur Built: No
Operator: Operating Certificate(s) Held: None
Operator Designator Code:

Meteorological Information and Flight Plan

Conditions at Accident Site: VMC 
Condition of Light: Day
Observation Facility, Elevation: OXR,44 ft msl
Observation Time: 06:51 Local
Distance from Accident Site: 34 Nautical Miles
Temperature/Dew Point: -7.2°C /-8.3°C
Lowest Cloud Condition: Clear 
Wind Speed/Gusts, Direction: 4 knots / , 60°
Lowest Ceiling: Overcast / 1400 ft AGL 
Visibility: 7 miles
Altimeter Setting: 29.87 inches Hg 
Type of Flight Plan Filed: IFR
Departure Point: Santa Barbara, CA 
Destination: Truckee, CA (TRK)

Wreckage and Impact Information

Crew Injuries: 1 Fatal 
Aircraft Damage: Destroyed
Passenger Injuries: 
Aircraft Fire: None
Ground Injuries: 
Aircraft Explosion: None
Total Injuries: 1 Fatal 
Latitude, Longitude: 34.388,-119.84 (est)

Those who may have information that might be relevant to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation may contact them by email eyewitnessreport@ntsb.gov, and any friends and family who want to contact investigators about the accident should email assistance@ntsb.gov. 

Debra Sue Nicholson
April 20, 1959 – September 27, 2020

Our hearts are broken and our minds bewildered at the tragic passing of our dear mother, daughter, sister, aunt, cousin and friend who was killed on September 27, 2020 when the plane she was piloting crashed shortly after take-off in Santa Barbara.

In the words of the countless hundreds of people who loved and admired Debbie, she was beautiful, kind, adventurous, energetic, whip-crack smart, fun to be with, a positive force, spirited, good at bringing people together, upbeat, enthusiastic, warm, generous, devoted, a loyal friend, fearless, humorous, interesting, witty, loving, accomplished, unforgettable, inspirational, efficient, resourceful, disciplined, compassionate, one-of-a-kind, remarkable, authentic, a bright light, independent, courageous, my hero, the bottom line. She had an infectious happy spirit, high-wattage energy, a tremendous sense of fun, and lived each day to the fullest. It’s impossible to imagine the world without her and we were the lucky ones to have had her in our lives.

Debbie was born in 1959 to Marilyn and Bob Nicholson and graduated Arcadia High School (’77), Stanford (’81) and UVA law school (’84). She took after her father who passed away two years to the day before her and taught her that she could do anything she set her mind to. She continued to talk to him and ask for his guidance as she managed many extended family matters. She began her career practicing tax law in San Francisco and went on to have her own estate planning law practice in Tahoe City. In her lifetime she was a cheerleader, song girl, president of the speech team, Kappa Kappa Gamma, Big Sister, congressional intern, secretary/treasurer of the Tahoe Truckee Bar Association, judge pro-tem for the Placer and Nevada Counties Courts system, water utility board member, newly appointed member of the Truckee Tahoe Airport Advisory Committee, co-correspondent for Stanford class of ’81, and member of the Tahoe Yacht Club and Valley Hunt Club.

Debbie worked incredibly hard so that she could play even harder, and she became a pilot and loved flying her plane because it gave her the ability to accomplish a multitude of projects and activities. She loved world-wide traveling with family and friends and all types of sporting activities but especially skiing and mountain biking. Many of us found ourselves behind her skiing West Face or climbing to Stanford Rock but she always waited for us with humble patience. She took on each day with purpose, gusto and razor-sharp focus whether it was flying to Utah for mountain biking, Sun Valley for skiing or Los Angeles and Phoenix for business and visiting family and friends.

Debbie leaves behind her two beloved sons, Bob and Will; her mother Marilyn; siblings Diane and Bob; brother-in-law Jim and sister-in-law Shannon; ex-husband and father of Bob, John (Tinker) Ward and ex-husband and father of Will, Pete Craig; nieces and nephews, Meagan, Nick, Sam, Sophie, Jack, Ben and Bryce; as well as numerous cousins and nieces and nephews through marriage who will all miss her for the rest of their days. Debbie’s passing leaves a big hole in a lot of people’s lives but we know she would have wanted all of her friends and loved ones to live life like she did, with passion and energy and a commitment to positivity that will honor her incredible life.


Debra Nicholson Craig

Authorities on Monday said they stopped the search and rescue effort for a Tahoe City woman about 24 hours after her plane was first reported downed off the coast near the Santa Barbara Airport.

The search for pilot Debra Nicholson has now turned into a recovery effort led by a dive team, the Coast Guard said.

According to a press release, authorities stopped the search a day after the Coast Guard located “a debris field and light sheen in the reported vicinity of the downed aircraft,” around two miles off the coast of the Santa Barbara Airport.

The plane was last seen at 7:10 a.m. Sunday.

Petty Officer Richard Brahm said search and rescue efforts are called off for various reasons, including life expectancy on the water, how long a person could reasonably survive in the water and the circumstances by which the person entered the water.

According to Hardy Bullock, director of Aviation and Community Services at the Truckee Tahoe Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office called the airport Sunday morning to confirm that Nicholson’s plane was not in the hangar.

“They wanted to make sure that the subject’s aircraft wasn’t in a hangar here,” Bullock said. “That’s protocol. We conduct a safety search to ensure that the aircraft scheduled to be here has arrived. If it’s not, it could substantiate claims.”

Bullock said the plane nor pilot were found on the premises.


Nicholson was an active community member, and was just appointed to serve on the Airport Community Advisory Team September 23rd, four days before her plane went down, Bullock said.

“She volunteered her time with the advisory team,” Bullock said. “We were looking forward to working with her.”

According to a letter of intent Nicholson directed to the Truckee Tahoe Airport on July 21st, Nicholson has two sons, the youngest of whom just began college.

According to that same letter, Nicholson has been practicing solo estate law in Tahoe City for over 30 years.

Brent Collinson, a Tahoe attorney who specializes in estate planning, said he remembers laughing with Nicholson after a Bar Association-sponsored slalom many years ago.

“The Bar Association used to have a ski day where attorneys got together and skied at a resort,” Collinson said. “We had a slalom race when she was four or five months pregnant and she beat me. Afterwards when we were sitting around, she said, ‘I live in Squaw Valley and ski everyday, so don’t feel bad.’”

Collinson, who is also a pilot, said he was jarred by the news given how qualified Nicholson was as a pilot.

“She had gone beyond the basics of a pilot’s license,” Collinson said. “I know she was instrument rated.”


Although Nicholson practiced estate law alone, she shared an office with another estate attorney in Tahoe City, Gregg Lien.

Lien said he knew Nicholson for over 40 years.

“I am dumbfounded,” Lien said. “She was a dear friend and colleague.”

Lien said Nicholson had a “whip crack smart mind,” and was well respected by her legal peers.

Lien said he and Nicholson worked for the same firm in the 1980s.

“We have a small legal community in Tahoe,” Lien said. “This is a tremendous loss to our community and group of colleagues.”

“The community is going to miss her,” Collinson said.


  1. What a tragedy. If you look at the last 2 ADSB tracks for N157RC on flightaware, you'll sadly see how she was likely doomed due to an unusual attitude event, possibly spacial disorientation, since in 16 seconds she turned 48 degrees, and the 16 seconds after that she turned 134 additional degrees. That 134 degrees in 16 seconds turns out to be around 3 times the standard rate of turn in 16 seconds, which would be 16 (seconds) times 3 (degrees per second)= 48 degrees.Again, she turned 134 degrees in this time that should have been at max 48 degrees in a marine layer in IMC overcast. The Rate of descent that developed in that 16 seconds would have tragically put the aircraft in the water within a minute or less, and below radar coverage very quickly hence why there was no other track reported. She was simply too low at that point... Things happen very fast in a spatial disorientation event, and how sad that this plane was a TAA (technically advanced aircraft) with a G1000 and KAP 140 autopilot. I've flown them many times, but if she wasn't yet using the autopilot things appear to have happened just same as a spatial disorientation tragedy in a steam gauge airplane. My heart goes out to her family...

  2. You can get a more detailed track on adsbexchange.

    Per LiveATC, KSBA Departure gave her a heading of 255 at 140233Z and she starts a gradual turn to that heading at 140235Z while continuing to climb through 1350 ft at a speed of 73-75 knots (which she had maintained throughout the climb.) She reached a heading of 255 at 140305Z but now her speed has increased to 93 knots and rate of climb has stopped at an altitude of 1600. At 140310Z she is now heading 303 and speed has increased to 105 knots and still at 1600. Over the next 15 seconds, her rate of turn and speed all rapidly increase to a maximum of 165 knots heading 150 while descending to 575 feet. Over the final few returns, her altitude holds at around 550-600 and speed decreases to 136 knots, but the turn continues, so I'm guessing she broke out of the clouds, realized her situation and tried to arrest her decent and possibly overstressed the airplane or stalled. It definitely looks like disorientation in IMC conditions.

    Listening to LiveATC, her ground communications are very sharp and precise, but her communications after take off are less so (she initially misspeaks her altitude as 11 thousand, for example). It's likely the entry into IMC after takeoff caused some stress. I know it would for me!

    This is such a tragic loss. She sounded like a wonderful person. My deepest condolences to her family and friends.

  3. VFR departure at KSBA into IMC over the ocean is not uncommon, especially during the early morning hours with the usual ocean fog rolling in along the Pacific Coast. Truly a sad and tragic loss. Clear case of Spacial Disorientation and a stall, and or a spiral into the ocean. This 182T had a Garmin G1000 glass cockpit with AP. Wonder why the AP wasn't engaged immediately after takeoff. RIP dear lady.


  4. C182T G1000/KAP-140 Take-Off Automaton
    a.PFD ALT KNOB – Verify desired altitude set above Altitude Tape
    b.KAP-140 BARO & KNOB – Set to desired altimeter setting
    c.KAP-140 ALTITUDE – Set to desired altitude setting (Same as 1a)
    d.PFD HEADING BUG – Set runway heading

    2.Establish Normal Climb
    a.See Take-Off Procedures
    b.Wait until at or above 1000’ AGL
    3.Engage KAP-140 Autopilot
    a.AP – Verify ROL and VS mode (Note Vertical Speed is reasonable)
    b.HDG – Set lateral mode to follow PFD heading bug
    c.ARM – Arm altitude capture mode (Verify ALT ARM appears)
    d.Callout – “AUTOPILOT ENGAGED”
    e.Monitor Airspeed - Set KAP-140 Vertical Speed to maintain desired airspeed
    f.Upon reaching selected altitude, verify ALT captures (replaces VS on top line of KAP-140)

  5. Plane and pilot were found Thursday.


  6. Seems like there could have been a medical event, maybe along the lines of stroke or seizure, causing momentary confusion at exactly the wrong time. I do sometimes force myself to hand fly some take offs into IMC as training for such conditions if AP or other failures occur, forcing a survival-like focus on instrument basics such as airspeed, heading, attitude, and climb rate, where I fly a Cirrus SR22T/G6 (so fully capable AP like this T182T). Maybe not the greatest idea since if something happens with nobody else in the cockpit, you are doomed.

    Such a sad story.