Pilot: Misjudging gain in altitude a common mistake in area crashes

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— The most common mistake pilots make in flying out of mountain airports is recognizing too late that they are not gaining altitude fast enough to clear the mountains, said a pilot who has flown thousands of times from the Steamboat Springs Airport.

Bob Maddox, owner of Mountain Flight Service, said pilots must carefully determine density altitude, weight and balance when flying out of Steamboat or any mountain airport. Mountain Flight Service, which has six pilots and three aircraft, has flown out of the Steamboat Springs Airport for 10 years without incident.

The airport is at about 7,000-feet elevation. Pilots flying to the east must rise to about 11,000 feet before leaving the Yampa Valley, Maddox said.

On Sunday afternoon, a Piper Cherokee Saratoga crashed in the Routt National Forest shortly after taking off from the Steamboat Springs Airport. There were four people and three dogs on board the aircraft. The only woman passenger died Monday morning. The three men survived, as did the dogs.

Maddox compared Sunday's crash to one that occurred in May 2001 in the White River National Forest. Four Reno, Nev., men died in that crash, which also involved a Piper Cherokee. The men were en route to Denver, and their plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Meeker, where they had stopped to refuel.

"Like this one, that was a small airplane with four people and a lot of luggage," Maddox said. "On Sunday, you had four people and three big dogs.

"I think there is kind of a denial among the pilots, especially if they are not familiar with flying from high altitude airports. People tend to overload their airplane thinking the performance is going to be there and not recognizing soon enough when it's not. They continue to press on thinking the airplane will climb."

There is no elevation gain to the west of the airport, and planes take off in that direction. Maddox said planes have plenty of room to build altitude before turning to make their flights to the south and east over the mountains.

"There is plenty of opportunity to get your altitude and if you don't get it, you just come back," Maddox said. "I'll bet that happens every day in Colorado where someone says, 'man this thing is not climbing,' and they make an uneventful return.

"On Sunday, they were probably pretty close and thought they were going to make it. They could have turned around at almost anytime."

He said the three passengers who survived were fortunate and that they probably benefited from a slower speed and a cushioned landing provided by the snow. He said the pilot likely flew through the trees intentionally.

"They teach you in flight school to aim the airplane between the trees and let the wings take the brunt of the impact and let the trees slow you down that way," Maddox said.

Maddox said Sunday's crash underscores how important it is for pilots to do their homework before taking off from airports at higher elevations like Steamboat.

"It reinforces the need for us to do our weight calculations and our density altitude calculations," Maddox said. "You never take it for granted."

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