SAGLE — Pilot error and insufficient preflight preparations are determined to be the probable causes of plane crash that claimed the lives of three people, including aviator and entrepreneur Dr. Pam Riddle Bird, according to a final National Transportation Safety Board report published on Tuesday.
Bird, 59, was presumably killed in the Oct. 8, 2015, crash in the Cabinet Mountains near Hope, although her remains are still unaccounted for. The crash also killed Don Hensley, 84, and his 80-year-old wife, Tookie.
The remains of the Hensleys were positively identified and NTSB investigators concluded Bird’s remains were consumed in a post-crash fire that destroyed the cabin of Bird’s Cessna 182P airplane.
A photo taken immediately before the doomed flight lifted off from Bird’s airstrip along Lake Pend Oreille showed Bird in the left front seat, Tookie Hensley in the right front seat and Don Hensley in one of the rear seats.
However, the NTSB investigation was unable to determine who was actually at the controls when the plane collided with trees on Round Top Mountain, according to the 10-page report.
The Cessna, which can be controlled from either of the front seats, crashed about 10 minutes after takeoff.
Radar data at the time of the crash depicted a target at 3,600 feet above mean sea level and climbing to the northeast. The track was heading directly toward rising mountainous terrain and was consistent with a direct course to the intended destination, NTSB’s report said.
The final radar return was near the accident site at 4,900 feet and an overcast cloud layer was present and estimated to be at approximately 5,000 feet.
“Based on the elevation of the wreckage at 5,226 feet msl, the pilot likely did not select an altitude sufficient to clear the terrain; the airplane was most likely flying along the base of the overcast layer or had ascended into the overcast layer immediately before its impact with terrain,” an analysis in the report said.
The analysis also noted that the pilots did not obtain a weather briefing from a flight service station on the day of the accident. NTSB said it was unknown if the pilots had checked the weather for the flight using other means prior to departure.
“The pilot’s selection of an inadequate altitude to cross mountainous terrain and her subsequent failure to maintain terrain clearance. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s inadequate preflight evaluation of the weather conditions and flight plan,” the NTSB said of the accident’s probable causes.
The final report comes 21 days after NTSB released a factual report in which mechanical failure was ruled out as a potential cause of the crash.
Bird, the widow for Dr. Forrest Morton Bird, held a private pilot certificate with a single-engine land rating, NTSB officials said. On her medical certificate application in 2015, Pam Bird reported her total flight time was 250 hours, with 60 hours flown in the previous six months.
Tookie Hensley, meanwhile, held commercial pilot and flight instructor certificates. She listed 3,500 hours of total flight time on her medical application in 2013, although she reported 13,000 hours of flight time in a 2012 application. Don Hensley also held a commercial pilot certificate and listed 2,000 hours of flight time in 2013, although a 2012 certificate listed 7,030 hours of flight time.
Tookie Hensley contacted Prescott Flight Service in Arizona on Oct. 7, 2015, and requested a weather briefing for a flight from Sandpoint to Minot, N.D. An Airman’s Meterological Information briefing described instrument flight rules conditions and mountain obscuration at higher-elevation terrain. Visual flight rules were not recommended, according to the AIRMET briefing.
Hensley stopped the AIRMET briefing and asked for the next day’s outlook, which presented similar conditions with less precipitation, the NTSB report said.
“The CFI (Tookie Hensley) then asked if conditions would be better if they flew south then east, and the briefer stated that the AIRMET extended to central Idaho in every direction,” the NTSB report said.
Prescott Flight Service had no record of further weather briefings involving the Cessna, according to NTSB.