Accident report roundup: controlled flight into wires

Many pilots worry about colliding with another airplane in flight, but not nearly as many worry about power lines. According to FAA numbers, that’s a mistake. There are roughly 75 accidents every year involving wires and while many of them involve helicopters, not all of them do. As the three accidents below show, airplane pilots regularly find ways to turn a fun flight into a fatal mistake.

The accidents

The first accident involved a Cessna 172, which crashed while flying low over the Mississippi River in Minnesota. The flight appeared to be an example of a general aviation pilot trying to recreate the Dam Busters mission, but with tragic results:

“After takeoff, the pilot proceeded south until reaching the Mississippi River when he proceeded to fly along the river at a low altitude. As the airplane approached a bend in the river, the pilot entered a shallow left turn to follow the river. The airplane subsequently struck power lines spanning the river that were located about 200 yards beyond the bend. Ground-based video footage and witness statements indicated that the airplane was at or below the height of the trees lining both sides of the river shortly before encountering the power lines.”

The video referenced in the NTSB report shows just how low the Cessna was flying:

Even at a leisurely 90 knots, the airplane was covering 150 feet per second, which doesn’t give much time to react to wires. Combine that with the winding river and it’s easy to see how wires could sneak up on a pilot.

Beyond just the wires, the NTSB report notes many other obstructions – the airplane flew “within 400 feet of the residences located along the river during the final portion of the flight.” That endangered people on the ground in addition to the pilot and his passenger. Of course it was also completely illegal.

In the second accident, a Citabria crashed near Lake Travis in Texas on a VFR day. The taildragger was on a local pleasure flight when a witness observed the airplane flying as low as 25 feet over the water. You can guess what happened, but as is increasingly the case these days, the pilot was recording the flight with a GoPro so we know for sure:

“A GoPro video camera was mounted to the airplane and was recording the accident flight. The recording captured the takeoff and the entire accident flight. The last portion of the video showed the airplane flying low over water for several minutes followed by a left turn over a field. At 0708:13 the airplane pitched up and began to increase altitude. At 0709:21 the airplane began to pitch down into low altitude flight and trees became visible under the airplane. At 0709:34 the airplane initiated a shallow bank to the right and at 0709:36 the camera was deflected downward and the impact sequence started immediately thereafter. A set of powerlines is visible just before the camera was deflected downward.”

Power lines
You might see the towers, but can you see all the wires?

Not all wire accidents involve buzz jobs over rivers and lakes. A surprising number of accidents occur after takeoff, like a 2012 crash of a Lancair. The pilot and the pilot-rated passenger took off from Belen, New Mexico, before sunrise. While the surrounding terrain is reasonably flat, a north-south power line is located just west of the airport:

“The investigation revealed that the power lines were barely visible on the horizon in the desertlike terrain during daylight hours… Evidence at the accident site showed that the airplane had collided with 25-foot high power lines about 1.2 miles west of the departure end of runway 21. “

There are a lot of problems with this flight, including the fact that the pilot-rated passenger did not have a medical and the pilot had a limitation for flying during daylight hours only. There’s also the question of why the airplane was only 25 feet high 1.2 miles from the airport. But it also highlights the importance of the background behind wires. In this case it was dark night but even in daytime, the flat desert of New Mexico would hide the wires quite effectively.

The lessons

One reaction to these accidents is “don’t be stupid.” As usual, that’s a convenient way of ignoring a legitimate risk. Better to use these accident reports as a springboard to improve your flying habits. Here are some rules to consider:

  • All rivers and valleys have wires. This is the helicopter pilot’s equivalent to “all guns are loaded.” Even if you’re sure that river valley doesn’t have wires strung across it, you should fly as if it does.
  • Last time doesn’t matter. Just because you’ve flown a route at low altitude before does not mean you’re safe – wires get put up all the time and they don’t show up in NOTAMs. In the 172 accident, it’s possible that the pilot’s familiarity with low altitude river flights led to some complacency. The NTSB report mentions, “The pilot’s father also informed FAA inspectors that his son was in the habit of flying at low altitudes along the Mississippi River.”
  • Fly above 500 feet. This is still fairly low – and certainly low enough for passengers to enjoy the view – but it puts you clear of all but the highest towers. Remember that anything above 200 feet must be approved by the FAA, so even flying above that altitude offers some modest protection (assuming you look at the chart). But notice that each of the three accidents mentioned above involved wires that were no more than 50 feet AGL!
  • When in doubt fly over towers, not wires. It’s much easier to judge height over a steel tower than a thin wire, and even if you see a wire you might not see all of them.
  • If you have to fly low, circle at high altitude first. If you positively have to fly at 100 feet (and you should ask yourself whether you really need to), first evaluate the area from a higher altitude. Look for towers or straight lines in the trees that might indicate power lines.
  • Weather doesn’t matter; time of day does. Most wire strikes happen in day VMC so just because the weather is good does not mean you’re safe. However, low sun angles do seem to increase the risk for a wire strike so be extra paranoid at sunrise or sunset.

24 Comments

  • For quite a few years after I got my pvt license in a Cessna 140A I had bought for that purpose in mid 70s, I had intense, scary nightmares about taking off and flying between and over wires. Not just one but dozens at a time. The entire nightmare was involved with me dodging wires as I climbed out. The other weird thing is that it wasn’t a grass strip but rather a downtown city street.

    I can only figure it came from just a few lessons on short field take offs that my instructor gave me on a short grass strip in rural Oklahoma near where I lived, which had telephone/power lines at the end. It was a bit intense. Maybe I should have not hired a crop duster instructor. I didn’t regularly fly out of a strip with wires.

    My brother, at the same time, flew his Cherokee out of a short grass strip nearby with telephone wires on at least one end (the approach end the one time I flew with him). I was told he’d clipped them more than once. It was a short strip for sure. Maybe that ride did it.

    • I’ve had exactly the same dream as well. I’ve talked to other pilots who told me the same thing. I don’t know what it is–maybe for a flyer up is safe–but many of us seem to be afflicted by this.

  • John,

    The intense, and deeply disturbing, nightmares you experienced regarding wire encounters are not uncommon among pilots. I had these long before I began flying into airstrips where man-made obstructions could be a factor. I suspect the wires are symbolic and represent some aspect of flying our brain is trying to work out as we sleep. I’m not a psychologist but I think this phenomenon would make an interesting study for someone who is.

    Anyway John, rest assured you are not alone.

  • My plane partner and I have both had dreams along these lines. I’ve found myself on local roads trying to take off and having to decide whether I will attempt to fly below or above the power lines. Another common occurrence is dreaming about taxiing on roads near our homes, stop signs and red lights. I’ve seen one wire strike at an airport during my student pilot days…a return to airport after vacuum failure following a svfr takeoff…he survived, but used a large portion of his bag of luck that day. I learned that patience and time will burn the fog off!!

  • I used to fly skydivers from a strip with power wires across one end, usually the upwind end, so I had to negotiate them fairly often. If I had a heavy load I would do a J takeoff roll to get a few extra knows and then turn away from them after takeoff and I could regularly see them out the open door.

    At least I knew that they were there and I had several plans in place to avoid them before I pushed the throttle in. Some of my cropduster friends were not so lucky.

  • gr8t article, im surprised there were so few wire strikes, mebbe the ag spray data is omitted? Several points to add; If you have to look for towers/wires; you’re already too low! If you do have to look, look for the towers/poles; not the wires.
    Know that comm. towers often have “guy wires” extending away as supports.
    Any remote mtns w/ roads going up them; expect a tower on top & that tower may well have a powerline to it, likely w/o the orange visibility balls installed.
    I too have had the urban nightmare of trying to fly over the cars & find a space in the wires to climb out… so many times, now i try to induce it!

  • Great article.
    When I was a young, bold pilot, I routinely flew 100 foot low levels at 600 mph. We flew through “Star Wars” type canyons (check out Bruneau Canyon 10 nm east of U91) and flew low in formation. It was exhilarating, and I loved every second of it!! I can see why folks get sucked into the fun of flying low, often without adequate training and with disastrous results.
    But, we always “chummed” our charts before Every flight, flew in sparsely inhabited areas, went through extensive recurrent training, and had a valid training requirement (plus ejection seats).
    Now that I’m an old pilot, I still enjoy a “geriatric” low-level every once in a while, but keep above 300’ (don’t want to chance a new tower, even though 99% are on my moving map), and maintain 91.119 altitude clearances (Mode S makes it easy to find a violator, plus we need to be sensitive to the non-flying public).

    • …besides low levels and Uncle Sam’s gas card…also miss the huge excess energy easily converted to zoom climb out of just about anything even without a burner.

      • Amen to that, Rich!! Loved the power and speed. Nothing beats a 100 to 300 foot supersonic low level in Tactical Formation across the Nellis ranges!!

        • That and VR1355 up the Cascades…but the Thunderpig (Prowler) couldn’t bust the number slick in an MRT dive out of 40k’…and we tried!

  • Look for towers, not wires. Towers over valleys/water are on ridges with a catenary between that may be many multiples of the regular span, don’t expect to see those wires much before impact… if you were in the valley you’d need to be looking up at the ridge to see the towers. Low level military training routes/areas allowing terrain following flights are regularly surveyed, participating aircrew report hazards and EXTENSIVELY brief the route…and sometimes, despite all that, charted wires are overlooked because the valley beckons. Most tactical terrain following is hand flown with eyeball terrain clearance cross checked by radar altimeter. Though speeds (360-600+ KIAS) are much higher on training routes, at the end of the day it’s time available to see, react, maneuver… and even at GA speeds, a face full of wires around a bend is not good.

    …and anyone who has training and a regular requirement to fly low or dynamically maneuver over water away from land will also remind you that judging altitude over water by eyeball alone can be fatal.

    If you must play “Star Wars canyon” and are not a professional with a reason to be there, stick to the simulator or make sure you don’t kill anyone else.

  • I had the flying up through a maze of wires dream often when I was young, long before becoming a pilot. (Though I was always interested in flying and airplanes.) In these dreams I was not a bird but I somehow had figured out how to fly by flapping my arms – and that I had to keep flapping to stay up. The lessons of altitude and power ingrained early? After learning to fly I have had another version – finding myself in a field surrounded by tall trees trying to circle my way out. Could Icarus have something to do with this? Interesting to find this phenomenon so prevalent.

  • Oh man oh man. I’ve never written about this, I’m not proud and I’m not bragging. In my misspent youth I liked to fly under a set of wires near the home drome. They were about 100′ high and fitting underneath was like going under the sky. “No big deal” I thought. Of course there is not a hint of an excuse for that. A coworker told me something that permanently changed the way I approached flying and life in general. He said “You know Kid, sometimes they add wires to those things and when they do, they don’t build the towers up higher and add the wires on the top.” He stopped talking and let that sink in. Since then, I’ve known two pilots who hit wires and each one killed a passenger along with themselves. One of those may have hit a new wire. Yesterday doesn’t matter. Another hit wires and managed to fly his terribly damaged airplane to the nearest airport.

  • Like many of the folks commenting above, I was once much bolder. Paying attention to my long list of missing friends has caused me to constantly rethink and reprocess my risk assessment practices. Years ago, I was flying the Yosemite River in my Super Cub with a friend up front at the controls. We both saw the wires at the same time and as I slammed my hand into the stick, he also pushed hard forward, thank God. We skimmed under the wires without a scratch, but what a wake-up call!
    Alas, the lure of crossing this amazing country in slow airplanes by following river valleys has proven too attractive for my willpower, so we still fly low and slow. Albeit with a better set of SOP’s and absolute diligence in sticking to them.

  • When I was young and thrill seeking pilot I did few crazy things too. One day I was flying a Australian made Gemini Thruster, that is a two seater ultralight with Rotax engine. As a common instinct with many pilots, we fly to strange locations and terrain. I was no different.

    On this particular day, I was flying a thousand feet AGL over a river when I noticed girls bathing down below. Some of them looked up and waved. Being a pilot, I smiled, power backed and made a descending turn to come right over them. Many of them were topless and kind of naughty from my pilot’s perspective. All of them waved. I waved back. My eyes zeroed in on one good looking girl. I climb up to eight hundred and came for a second pass. I came in low and noticed that pretty one and waved. She waved back. I turned my head kept waving at her. I think I must have waved at her for about extra five seconds because, I pulled up to climb, I hit wires and next I was in river sand. I blacked out for maybe two to three seconds and then everything came back. There was no propeller but engine was still running. I shut it off. Right wing had detached and come to the left. Tail boom had broken and lying in front of the nose. Tiny cockpit was shattered and my legs were in the sand. The windshield was in place was the engine mounts. What kept me from forward impact was the seatbelt and shoulder harness that the manufacture said is stressed to sixteen Gs.
    There were no girls in the river. All ran away. My relief came after three hours or so. I am lucky to be alive and still flying today. A lesson I learnt flying that day brings smiles and admonition. I was crazy.
    Happy Landings Guys !!

  • Many years ago, I went for a ride with a retired USAF pilot in his Grumman AA-1B in southern Minnesota. Unexpectedly, he said it was time for a little valley flying, and down we went. We cruised through a couple of valleys as my unease grew. Fortunately, we didn’t hit any wires and had an otherwise nice flight. However, just the thought of catenaries during that flight led to some nightmares like those described above. Afterward, I never had there least desire to make low altitude flights anywhere, much less down valleys and along rivers. BTW, I believe there are many “illegal” (i.e., not reported to or approved by the FAA and thus unmapped) high structures in this country. Like airspeed, altitude is life.

  • I had a very dear friend lose his daughter right after graduation from the Air Force Academy by hitting power lines doing a single engine failure exercise in pre-pilot training. The Air Force has a restriction of going no lower than 1500 ft agl for this training unless your over an airport. The retired Col. and IP ignored this and the end result was they both died.

  • Never dodged any wires in live flight but for years was dogged by the “oh-no-here-come-the-wires-I’ve-got-to-somehow-maneuver-thru” dream; amazed but glad, I guess, to read I wasn’t alone.
    My law career was in plane crash litigation for Uncle Sam. We had enough wire strike cases to quench what slight attraction I might’ve ever had for very low flight.

  • Flying with a good friend in his Champ to a Saturday morning fly-in he decided to land at a neighboring grass strip upon return. His home strip was on a 18-36 heading and the winds were 20 mph with gusts directly from the east. We made the approach into the neighboring 9-27 oriented grass strip, and just as we approached the road on the west end he remarked “glad I’m high, I didn’t see those wires!” As it turned out some 30’ to 40’ power lines stretched across the approach end. We landed easily as the stiff wind shorted our rollout dramatically. Reflecting back on that landing and that flight, I am sure glad my friend caught sight of those lines long before he had to make any abrupt attempt to avoid them. Also, earlier that morning after landing at the fly-in he made a 360 degree turn while taxing because the winds were so strong it overcame any control to hold the aircraft straight. He said he was glad I was along as extra weight in the back. In looking back it seems that making that trip in those winds wasn’t a real good idea in the first place.

  • Here’s a recent one for ya’ at my home airport KAXN – a friend who had been warned more than once by those of us who watched his flying antics. Incredibly detailed and in-depth narrative (preliminary) report not leaving much doubt as to the cause. Weather conditions that evening were supportive of carb icing. Accident #CEN18FA297.

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