A Kentucky pilot likely became disoriented as he maneuvered to avoid deteriorating weather conditions, leading to a crash in which he and three others died, according to a federal investigation.
The probable cause of the crash was that pilot Scott T. Foster, who wasn’t rated to fly by instruments alone, flew into an area where the conditions wouldrequired flying by instruments. He lost control because of disorientation, according to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board.
One witness on the ground reported seeing the airplane in a nosedive before it crashed.
Attorneys for Foster’s widow have raised the potential that icing on the plane wings was a significant factor in the crash. They also alleged that air-traffic control was negligent.
The NTSB did not cite icing as a potential cause. The agency also said there was no indication of mechanical problems before the crash.
The crash happened on Nov. 12, 2017, as Foster, a 41-year-old Somerset attorney, and his son Noah, 15, returned from a hunting trip in western Tennessee with Kyle P. Stewart, 41, a dentist in Somerset, and Doug Whitaker, 40, a lawyer and Somerset Police Department chaplain.
Foster’s plane, a Piper PA32 built in 1965, hit trees in a heavily wooded area near Fountain Run, in Barren County, and came to rest wedged between tree trunks.
The three men died at the scene. Rescuers found Noah alive and rushed him to a hospital in Bowling Green, but he died there.
The crash was among the worst air accidents in the state since an August 2006 crash at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington that killed 49 people.
NTSB reports on the accident include a description of how a pilot can become disoriented, lose control and go into a “graveyard spiral” to the ground.
In that situation, a pilot can have the sensation that the plane is flying in a direction it is not. The pilot may make a course change that feels correct, but isn’t, the NTSB said.
Foster was flying east at an altitude of about 5,500 feet when he called the air-traffic control center in Memphis. He said he planned to climb in order to maintain VFR, or visual flight rules, according to the NTSB. Those rules require a pilot to maintain a minimum number of miles of visibility and distance from clouds.
After a climb to 6,600 feet and a series of left and right turns, Foster called the Memphis tower to report encountering conditions that required he fly by instruments, according to the report released Tuesday.
Foster asked the Memphis air-traffic center for an altitude with more visibility.
A controller radioed back just over a minute later to say another pilot in the area had reported the clouds topped out at about 8,000 feet, and Foster responded that he would climb to that altitude. He was at 7,325 feet at the time.
Over the next 30 seconds, however, radar showed the plane made shallow turns to the left and right at altitudes between 7,000 feet and 7,300 feet, according to the NTSB.
The plane then made downward right turns with increasing rates of banking and descent.
Less than a minute after saying he would climb to 8,000 feet, Foster’s plane was at an altitude of 5,675 feet. “We’re going down,” he said on the radio.
Under normal conditions when a pilot can see the ground and the horizon, the sensory system in the inner ear helps a pilot identify the movement of a plane, the NTSB report said. When a pilot can’t see the horizon, that sensory system can become unreliable, the report said.
The inner ear can’t detect changes in the plane’s orientation under certain conditions, or false sensations can make the pilot believe the orientation of the plane has changed when it hasn’t, resulting in a condition known as spatial disorientation, the report said.
“If the pilot believes the illusion of a right turn (which can be very compelling), he/she will re-enter the original left turn in an attempt to counteract the sensation of a right turn. Unfortunately, while this is happening, the airplane is still turning to the left and losing altitude,” the report said. “If the pilot fails to recognize the illusion and does not level the wings, the airplane will continue turning left and losing altitude until it impacts the ground.”
The report said the erratic path of Foster’s plane — which included changes in altitude and direction inconsistent with his stated plan to climb to an area of better visibility — and the rapidly descending right turn shown on radar were consistent with the known effects of spatial disorientation.
The NTSB said it believed a contributing factor in the crash was Foster’s “self-induced pressure to complete the flight.”
The wife of one passenger had planned a surprise party the Sunday afternoon that the four were due to return, the report said.
The report included a description of behavior called “get-there-itis” — a drive to complete flights as planned, meet schedules and generally show capability — common among pilots. Get-there-itis can impair a pilot’s judgment, according to information in the report from the Federal Aviation Administration.
After Foster’s last radio transmission, the air-traffic controller told him the nearest airport was in Tompkinsville, about 15 miles away, but got no response. After several unsuccessful attempts to contact Foster, the controller asked other pilots flying in the area to see if they could raise the plane on the radio or see it. Other pilots listened in vain for radio transmissions from the plane.
One witness on the ground, Gabriel Anundson, who was in a tree stand while hunting deer, said he could hear the engine of the airplane “cutting in and out real bad.” When it dropped out of the clouds, it went into a spin and “blew apart.”
Anundson told Kentucky State Police that the plane’s propeller appeared to come off and cut the wing as the plane came down.
The NTSB described the crash as an in-flight breakup, meaning the plane started coming apart as a result of the stresses placed on it during the rapid descent.
Some pieces of the airplane, including part of the right wing, were found three-fourths of a mile from the main wreckage, according to the NTSB report.
The NTSB said there was no record that Foster obtained an official weather briefing before lifting off for home.
However, Foster was receiving flight services from the Memphis air-traffic center, and his widow told police he was “careful and meticulous,” always checking weather conditions before flying. He also used an application on his iPad to receive weather information while flying.
Foster checked the weather on his intended route on a hand-held device before taking off from the Tennessee airport, attorneys for his widow and the estates of three crash victims told the FAA.
Attorneys argued that the air-traffic controller didn’t give Foster safer options for avoiding poor visibility when he asked for advice before the crash. The FAA declined comment Wednesday. The other approaches would have been either a 180-degree turn away from the area or descent to the nearest airport, the attorneys said in a complaint to the FAA.
Instead, the controller advised Foster to climb through 3,000 feet of icing conditions, attorneys Henry S. Queener III and Jerry Skinner told the FAA.
Another pilot flying below 15,000 feet within about 50 miles of the accident site reported light icing conditions before the crash, according to the NTSB report.
Foster’s plane did not have de-icing equipment.
“Ice accretion, loss of control, and crashing were nearly certain” either as Foster climbed to 8,000 feet or came down later through more potential icing conditions on the way to Lake Cumberland Regional Airport in Somerset, Queener and Skinner said in the complaint.
The notice alleged that air-traffic control was negligent, fell below professional standards and was a direct cause of the crash.
Only after losing radio contact with Foster did air-traffic control provide information on diverting to an airport near the crash site, the complaint noted.
“This suggestion was too little too late,” the notice said.