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Famed pilot, air controller blamed in ’06 crash

Pilot Scott Crossfield, the first man to fly at twice the speed of sound, and an air traffic controller were blamed Thursday for the crash of a single-engine plane during a thunderstorm last year that killed Crossfield.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pilot Scott Crossfield, the first man to fly at twice the speed of sound, and an air traffic controller were blamed Thursday for the crash of a single-engine plane during a thunderstorm last year that killed Crossfield.

A test pilot who personified “the right stuff” during the ’50s, Crossfield knew he was flying his Cessna 210A into rough weather but did not ask for a weather update and the air controller did not provide one, the National Transportation Safety Board found.

The board concluded that these two failures led the 84-year-old Crossfield to fly on instruments into a severe thunderstorm that sent his plane straight into the ground 50 miles northwest of Atlanta on April 19, 2006. The board said the storm he flew into contained supercells that produce sudden, strong downdrafts.

The investigation found no mechanical malfunctions that could have caused the crash.

Alone at the time, Crossfield was flying his Cessna from Prattville, Ala., to his home in Manassas, Va.

Dueling for supremacy
In the 1950s, Crossfield, a civilian working for the predecessor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Chuck Yeager, an Air Force pilot, dueled for supremacy among the nation’s Cold War test pilots. They regularly climbed into the most powerful, dangerous and complex aircraft of the time, including the X-1 and X-15 rocket planes.

Crossfield later became an executive for Eastern Airlines and Hawker Siddeley Aviation and a technical consultant to the House Committee on Science and Technology. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1983.

Before he took off on his final flight, Crossfield told an acquaintance he might have to fly around some severe weather. “However, by the time the airplane encountered the weather, the pilot had been airborne for over an hour and had not requested any updated weather information from air traffic controllers,” the NTSB said.

As the plane entered a level 6 thunderstorm, the severest type, Crossfield requested and received permission from air traffic control in Atlanta to turn to escape the weather. About 30 seconds later, his plane disappeared from radar.

Wreckage was found in two places less than a mile apart suggesting “low altitude, in-flight breakup,” the safety board said. The main wreckage created a 4.5-foot crater but caused limited damage to heavy overhead foliage, suggesting “a near vertical descent.”

The thunderstorms were visible on the controller’s radar scope and there was no excessive air traffic, radio frequency congestion or controller workload issue “that would have prevented the controller from issuing pertinent weather information to the accident pilot,” the investigators concluded.

Board: Controller should have advised pilot
Federal Aviation Administration rules require controllers to give top priority to separating aircraft and issuing safety alerts and to first perform the action most critical to safety, the safety board noted. It concluded the controller “should have recognized that the adverse weather represented an immediate safety hazard to the accident flight and should have provided appropriate advisories to the pilot.”

Without naming the controller, the board quoted him as saying he believed the weather displayed on his scope “can be between 6 and 15 minutes old and is widely viewed as being unreliable. He stated that pilots have a better idea of where adverse weather is and that he expects them to inform him on what actions they need to take to avoid it.”

After the accident, Yeager recalled that during their days as test pilots Crossfield “being a civilian, had a lot more freedom than we did, as military guys. ... Sometimes he exceeded his capability and got in trouble.”

Asked for an example, Yeager said: “Flying in weather that he should have never been in.”

In “The Right Stuff,” a history of the early space age, author Tom Wolfe portrayed Crossfield, Yeager and other test pilots as possessors of “the right stuff” — “the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment — and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day.”