Leaked FAA memo sheds light on Superstition Mountains plane crash
Updated: Wednesday, 09 May 2012, 9:49 PM MST Published : Wednesday, 09 May 2012, 9:43 PM MST Fox 10 News
APACHE JUNCTION, Ariz. – The night before thanksgiving, while most families were preparing to spend the holiday together, a plane crashed into the Superstition Mountains in the east valley. All on board were killed, including these 3 young children and their father.
The official cause of the crash won’t be known for months, but tonight we have new troubling information that raises the question — did this have to happen? Did they have to die?
We’ve learned FAA safety investigators believe the air space around the Superstition Mountains may have contributed to this deadly crash.
A problem they have known about for years.
The FAA’s findings have never been made public until now. Something else that’s never been made public until now — haunting images of those kids just before their flight.
These are the final images taken of the Perry kids arriving at Falcon Field on the evening of November 23, 2011.
Pictures show Logan, 8, Luke, 6, followed by their 9-year-old sister Morgan, enter the executive terminal. Its 6 o’clock. In 30 minutes they will all be gone.
They wait to meet their father Shawn who’s flying in from Safford.
As the plane arrives, it’s already dark. They plan to fly back to Safford to spend thanksgiving with dad.
Dad climbs in back with the kids. Russell Hardy takes the left pilot seat. Joseph Hardwick, a mechanic, takes the right seat.
The plane taxis out to the runway. The Rockwell 690 takes off from runway 4R, heading northeast.
90 seconds later, it’s approved for a right turn, bound for Safford.
Travelling at 200 miles an hour, the plane is at 45-hundred feet.
For the next 3 minutes — it flies straight and level.
No signs of any trouble as it plows directly into Ship Rock.
911 callers: “A plane just crashed into the Superstition Mountains… and it just kind of flew right into the fricken mountain… it looked like they didn’t know Ship Rock was there!”
When the NTSB issues its final report on the crash, pilot error will almost certainly be the primary cause. Loss of “situational awareness,” meaning the pilot simply lost track of where he was.
And you can see how easily it could happen. He was flying visual flight rules, and he did not file a flight plan. And the majestic superstitions on a moonless night would simply vanish in the distance. He didn’t see the mountain until it was too late.
“0k now we’re up here in the crevice where it looks like the plane maybe first hit.”
Karen Perry lost her entire family in the crash. Since that day, she has searched for answers, sometimes finding them here on the mountain.
“Obviously some kind soul that came left a memorial here and left some toys and pictures,” she says.
The mountain makes her feel closer to her children. She sees it everyday. It’s right outside her front door.
“I walked away without my children’s bodies without any clear evidence they were actually gone,” says Perry. “It’s a comfort to at least know what happened to them.”
But there’s one question that continues to haunt her. Did something else contribute to this crash? Something that could have prevented the terrible loss of life?
The answer may lie here: in this internal memo from the FAA obtained by FOX 10 news.
A document the agency did not want you to see.
In it, three top investigators from the FAA’s Scottsdale office conclude the airspace design in the area of the crash is insufficient. In it, the FAA writes: “The airspace design with regard to obstacle (terrain) clearance is not sufficient to ensure a margin of safety necessary to preclude the possibility of an accident similar to the one that occurred on November 23, 2011.”
In other words, the airspace design near the Superstitions is putting pilots at risk — and future accidents could happen if it’s not fixed.
“It was an accident that I feel badly making the statement it was going to happen and it had to happen, it’s something that should not have happened,” says Jim Timm, executive director of the Arizona Pilots Association.
For years he warned the FAA the airspace around the Superstitions is dangerous.
The FAA ignored him and denied there was a problem. Now its own investigators admit Jim Timm was right all along.
“Its pretty shocking these inspectors what they’ve written here is verbatim what I’ve been saying in meetings and written in memos.”
Back in 2006, Timm’s group warned, “Between the Superstition Mountains to the east and Falcon Field to the west, there is literally nowhere for GA (general aviation) pilots to (go).”
Here’s the problem.
Passenger jets flying into Sky Harbor from the east occupy class B airspace — a slice of sky that begins at 5 thousand feet.
Private planes flying visual flight are forbidden from entering class B. They must stay below 5-thousand feet.
Had the aircraft been at 5,500 feet everybody would be home and happy. The Superstitions rise above that.
Without special clearance, private planes are not allowed to fly over the mountains, so they’re forced to dodge them
It limits a pilot’s options.
why Jim Timm, back in 2006, fought to raise class B airspace to 7-thousand feet, giving commercial aircraft an easy approach into sky harbor, while also giving private pilots plenty of room to clear the mountains.
Had the FAA listened — the November crash might never have happened.
The plane impacted at 46-hundred feet, consistent with a pilot trying to stay beneath class B airspace.
But there’s something else in this secret memo that’s equally troubling.
It says air traffic controllers in the phoenix area routinely refuse to assist private pilots.
It was cited as a contributing cause of a deadly crash in the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale in 2003.
A plane impacted 100 feet from the top of the mountain — killing a husband and wife on board.
The FAA memo states: “The airman requested flight following… Prior to departure. The airman was denied this service due to a long standing policy with PHX Tracon and all surrounding satellite airports.”
It goes on to say: “while terrain avoidance is ultimately the (pilots’) responsibility, had the airman been provided the service he requested, it is this inspectors opinion this accident could have been avoided.”
The pilot in the November crash never asked for help from the tower.
“The culture is in place has evolved that people simply don’t ask for permission to enter the bravo airspace because they feel they’re going to be denied. Don’t ask cause you’re not going to get it.” Sources tell fox 10 controllers don’t want the additional work load.
Yet the FAA memo points out: “…other areas around the USA provide this service to pilots, including the very busy LAX (Los Angeles) area.”
Timm says bottom line, these accidents shouldn’t have happened. And the FAA knew better.
“When I heard what happened my heart sunk really I thought, we don’t need this kind of regulation written in blood.”
Karen Perry’s search for answers brought her to a scrap yard in Phoenix. The remains of the plane piled up and bagged, as tangled and disjointed as her life since the crash.
Everything she loved was lost in this wreckage. And now she’s left to put the pieces back together.
“I need to see it for some of it to sink in to me,” she says.
She hopes the FAA will make changes before there’s another tragedy.
“It’s painful. Because the general aviation flying public was aware, the FAA was aware and yet they did it anyway. I want to see changes that need to be made as a result of this accident, I’m hoping that they’re made. I’m hoping that they’ll do the right thing.”
The 3 FAA investigators in this memo recommend the airspace be redesigned.
They also call for a national probe into why air controllers in the Phoenix area are denying service to pilots.
The FAA refused to allow anyone to talk with us on camera. They did issue this statement that reads in part: “We cannot comment on any pending investigation… the FAA will evaluate the submission from the regional safety inspectors.”
We will of course keep on top of this story.