Note: This first appeared on Flynthings.net in 2005. Re-posted with permission
In light of the most recent fatality at our cozy San Luis Obispo Airport, I’ve been encouraged to comment on this tragedy which could have easily been avoided. The preliminary accident report has been published but the official report has not been concluded. Unfortunately by the time this report does come out there will be a whole new troop of private pilots in our community who will have long forgotten about Fresno pilot “Heber Meeks”, father of three, whose ink was still wet on his temporary license, found charred atop Islay Hill.
Speculations about what went wrong are all we have at this time. I’ve drawn my own conclusions from what few facts are known and my own flying experiences through the years. What we do know is that SBP was IFR at his time of departure (overcast 800, 10 miles visibility). According to witnesses, he departed runway 11 that late evening with a left turnout into Islay Hill. What reasoning could have led up to this new private pilot’s fatal decision to go? Did he really think he could make it? Did he listen to ASOS? Did he even look up before he climbed into his plane?
Years ago, as a new private pilot from Fresno, I could have been pushing up the daises too, on the top of a Central Coast hill. One early summer evening in the sweltering Valley heat, I departed Fresno Chandler enroute to Monterey. A friend of mine needed a lift and thought it be a fun way to get there. The flight was uneventful, except towards the end when we had to get a little help finding the runway through the glare of the setting sun.
My friend met his party and we all ended up visiting over dinner in the terminal. After walking back to my plane, I checked ATIS and it was comfortably VFR. Bidding my friend farewell, I was cleared for an intersection takeoff on runway 10R with a slight left toward Panoche. The one thing I did have going for me was studying the terrain on my sectional and knowing I could cross the hills in front of my prop with my listed climb gradient
Civilization had not carved it’s communities into the hillsides at that time and my horizon was pitch black. I canceled flight following with Oakland so I could relax and hear my music better, (another “smart teenage” idea). Squinting at the strobes out my window, I noticed a billowing trail of water vapor streaming from my leading edge and departing across the ailerons. Flash on, it got bigger, flash off, soft red glow, flash on, “cloud 9”? Flash off, Rudolf the red nose reindeer… attitude indicator: 45º of bank, heading 30º off course…strobes now turning off. Well, I decided to stop looking at the disco lights outside and kept climbing until I could see the orange mirage of the San Joaquin. Needless to say I kept it secret for a long time and started my instrument training right
What I realize now is that it was a lot of over confidence and unfamiliarity of the quickly changing summer Central Coast weather that could have led to my demise. Like many Central Valley pilots I had logged many night hours (mostly flying back and fourth to Harris Ranch) as it was the coolest time to fly in the dog days. The one thing that stands out in my mind was the way the sky looked those hot summer valley nights… all those golden lights reflecting off a ceiling of heavenly smog. Not one star in the sky can pierce that unholy blanket! Come to think of it, it reminds me much of a cool July San Luis evening as the fog sneaks its way up Los Osos Valley road to kiss us all goodnight.
So after I began writing this article another accident involving a new Fresno pilot came to mind. This one occurred October 1, 2000 when a new private pilot departed runway 11 then tried to turn his Tomahawk around because “he hit a wall of clouds”. At least that was the last thing he could remember. At the time of his departure visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and he did not file a flight plan nor receive a weather briefing. What I find to be of most consequence is what he told the Safety Board investigator about his previous training. He said that most of his night training was accomplished around the lighted city areas of Fresno and some of it along the western edges of the Valley with the city lights in the distance. He did not recall any training about the difference from daytime flying and the difficulty seeing clouds and dark terrain at night!