Middlesboro, Ky
5 min read

There are some predictions I wish hadn’t come true. This is one of them.

I didn’t know the guy personally, but I vicariously knew his airplane. It was an A36 Bonanza, and the way I got to know it was that any day I happened to look at what was going on at Downtown Island Airport in Knoxville, it seemed this particular plane had taken off, headed for Middlesboro, Kentucky. It was a short flight, usually between 15 and 20 minutes.

It made me wonder why he bothered flying it, unless he just wanted to fly. It didn’t really make a lot of sense from a time standpoint. Sure, it was only 20 minutes up there, but before getting in the air, he had a 30 minute drive to the airport, followed (one would hope) by a thorough pre-flight and run-up. It would have been close to an hour just to get in the air. And then after he got to Middlesboro, he still had to get from the airport to his final destination. Time wise it made no sense, but if he wanted to fly for the fun of it, it was an excellent excuse. Most mornings.

Middlesboro, Ky

The airport in Middlesboro is not a great bad weather airport.

What caught my eye in looking at his trips was that some of them were made on not good mornings, when the weather was so low that no one in their right mind would have flown in those conditions into that location. The airport is in a valley, with a 1500-foot pile of dirt just to the south. Other rising terrain dots the entire area. It’s a challenging place to fly in good conditions. It’s Russian roulette when the weather is bad, which, judging from his diversions to alternate fields, was not uncommon.

Several times when ceilings were low in Knoxville and the surrounding area, he would be in the clouds headed for work. There was an RNAV approach, but with an MDA of over 1600 feet AGL, it wasn’t much of one. While it’s just a suspicion, it’s probably a valid one based on what the weather was 40 miles away, I think he fudged or ignored that MDA on a somewhat regular basis. If the weather was really down, there was another airport not far away, but with similar terrain and an approach with a similar MDA. Sometimes he would divert to that and make it in. On the day in question, it was that alternate airport he was trying to land at.

But the question is, when you’re not saving much—if any—time to fly, and when the weather is so bad that you know you’re putting your life in jeopardy, why do you leave the ground?

As of November 3, 2022, that question will never be answered. Weather was severe clear in Knoxville, but evidently it wasn’t at Middlesboro, because it appears from the track that he went straight to the alternate, Baxter.

1A6 METAR history

There were several turns recorded by flight tracking, and then the final one that seems to show him on the approach, stopping about a quarter of a mile from the end of the runway. Was he still IFR when he hit the ground? I’m sure the final report will tell us (here’s the preliminary report).

Track log

A short flight, with a predictable ending.

A few months ago, my son was with me on an afternoon flight in the general direction of Middlesboro, and I was telling him about this guy, and remember making the statement, “One of these days, you’re going to see a story about him on the front page of the paper.” Well, it didn’t make the front page, but I did get an alert from a local TV station about a plane crash in Baxter. Not being that familiar with Kentucky geography, I turned to Google Maps. Sure enough, it was the airport he had used as his secondary. Details were sketchy, but the story did say it was a Beechcraft with one person on board. That was another piece of the puzzle. I then went to Flightaware. Had he left that morning? Yes, and timing was about right. It showed result unknown on the flight. Another piece. Then I turned to FlightRadar24, with gives more track detail, and there it was. The next morning, the name was confirmed.

Why do people do things like this? This guy was a doctor. Not to be unkind to doctors, but I recalled an incident in Texas a few years ago when a doctor in an A36 had flown through Lubbock from Amarillo to pick up his daughter to then go to the Dallas area to eat and then fly back. Just a joy ride. Nothing urgent. He left Lubbock on the return at about 10pm, with conditions in Amarillo at zero/zero. He didn’t have an instrument rating, but that didn’t keep him from filing an IFR flight plan. Predictably, the wreckage was found the next morning. His wife and son were also his victims.

The laws of physics are not flexible. If an airplane hits the ground out of control, the results are rarely good. If you cheat fate often enough, fate will win eventually. There are mistakes, and there are stupid mistakes, and thinking that somehow the rules that apply to others don’t apply to you, and that somehow you are immune from disaster, is a stupid mistake that has cost too many pilots their lives.

If you know a pilot like this guy, sit him or her down and have a talk. They may not listen, but at least when you read the story in the paper about the crash, you’ll feel better that you tried.

Jay Wischkaemper
Latest posts by Jay Wischkaemper (see all)
15 replies
  1. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    An old saw, but still a true one,,, “Get-there-itis, will sometime Bite-us!”

    Sad story, and good advice on your part to sit someone guilty of such behavior and have a meaningful discussion with them.

    Reply
  2. Carson Wagner
    Carson Wagner says:

    So true! Unfortunately, some pilots just don’t seem to realize the danger, or think: “Oh, well, that’ll never happen to me!”
    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  3. TomC
    TomC says:

    As a member of a flying club with a 182, I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to fly out to my employer’s corporate office. 100 minute flight time versus 6 hour drive around NYC. That opportunity came and went, and I passed on it due to the slimmest possibility of running into IMC. Beautiful days both, but no regrets.

    Reply
  4. JohnH
    JohnH says:

    Never normalize deviance. Recommendations by FAA, AOPA, etc regarding personal minimums are made because pilots keep killing themselves (and their passengers) in predictable ways.

    Reply
    • leonard lowe
      leonard lowe says:

      Personal minimums should be: well thought out, based on actual PIC experience, agreed upon by the significant others who will be affected, and adhered to religiously. As a low time Sport Pilot, my minimums leave me grounded when the actual WX is better than forecast, but they are MINIMUMS.

      Reply
  5. MichaelL
    MichaelL says:

    The preliminary report calls out what happened pretty clearly. I’m getting close to completing my instrument rating and I’d like to point out one thing that might have contributed to his overconfidence (I’m trying to be kind to the deceased). I am training in a C172 and it doesn’t have an autopilot. When I look at his ground track I see near perfect turns and a perfectly straight track. That, to me, says that he was and probably always flew his approaches with the autopilot. I think that’s normally a great idea but coupled (pun intended) with the fact that there was no instrument flight plan filed and he clearly “took a closer look” a few times on this approach, I think he cheated death and the system a lot. The AP lessens the workload but minimums are minimums for a reason. Looking at the terrain he “avoided” a few times makes me wonder what he was thinking…

    Reply
  6. Jong Lee
    Jong Lee says:

    Great article,
    We’ve all seen pilots who count benefit from such a sit-down. The paradox of safety is that those who mostly likely need that will be the least inclined to participate in safety programs (club program, Wings, flight school program, Air Facts..), let alone a sit-down.
    At the non-towered airport I teach at, we routinely have pilots flying 6 mile base legs, 10 mile VFR straight-ins (with airplanes established in the pattern). Trying to have a conversation is met with indignation or glad-handing.
    I know I’ll have folks mad with this, but the FAA ASI’s have to do more supervision. I’m not asking for penalties (unless deserved) but advisory ramp checks and monitoring the CTAF. And then they can do the sit-downs.
    Best Wishes

    Reply
  7. Art S
    Art S says:

    I’m a new pilot just starting instrument, so I have to agree completely with your thoughts regarding the reason for flying in the first place and the logic which was violated in this case. The one place I have to disagree is the comment about sitting someone down. Humans, not just pilots, are incredibly averse to, even offended by unsolicited advice. Most of the time such behavior will result in the issue being turned around onto the advisor. Think pulling aside someone who rides a high-performance motorcycle behaving in an irresponsible or dangerous way and letting them know how they can change their ways for their own good. This behavior might simply be a type. I’ve personally, and generally been a rule follower not exciting for sure, safer definitely. There are enough things which introduce risk just walking down the street we can’t control without knowingly pouring it on.
    Perhaps an indirect approach would work, but not optimistic that a direct one would.

    Thanks for the article and what most of us would consider sage advice.

    Reply
    • MichaelL
      MichaelL says:

      I’ve got all of my hours for the instrument rating and I start ground school this Friday. Once I pass the test (where’s the praying hands emoticon when I need it) my instructor and I will work start fine tuning everything for the checkride. I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun as I have with training for this rating. A few years ago a Cirrus pilot flew into a very bad weather system just west of KFMN. Based on FlightRadar24 data he flew high and had to have been using oxygen. The aircraft descended in a very long wide right turn that lasted at least 30 miles that ultimately ended in the Cirrus and the non-instrument rated pilot being reduced to small bits. I lived up there at the time and when I went to town that morning I clearly remember being grateful that I was on the ground. It was snowing hard up on the mesa and the snow was looping back up into the clouds. I envisioned him popping the chute and coming down out in the badlands. The more likely scenario is that he was incapacitated. After that I set Xplane up to fly a C172 from KFMN to KCEZ in a snowstorm. There’s nothing much more sobering than watching the aircraft depart controlled flight, exit the clouds at less than 300′, and crashing. I guess “real life” and realizing that you are less than 2s away from merging with the earth because you’re not instrument rated and you busted minimums by 1,600+ feet would trump crashing in a simulator.

      Reply
  8. Low Wings
    Low Wings says:

    The forces of nature (aka REALITY) patrol, defend and enforce the boundaries of good practice 24/7 and will, without remorse, apology, or appeal, simply destroy aircraft and occupants violating those boundaries. The FAA and GA flight instruction culture and community of practioners have settled on the hackneyed notion of Risk Management which implies and promotes practices and procedures to overcome adverse circumstances as the path to fewer crashes and fatalities. The well populated salvage yards of bent and broken GA aircraft and the hapless pilots that put them there are stark reminders of the fallacy and failure of Risk Management.

    A better and more effective policy framework would be to focus instead on Risk Mitigation which rests on the three-legged platform of risk awareness, risk assessment and evaluation, and risk avoidance. But, alas, such thinking is largely absent in GA culture and the carnage continues unabated as the number of crashes and fatalities rests near it’s irreducible level year after year! The forces of nature do not provide any other outcome!

    Reply
  9. Don W
    Don W says:

    According to the preliminary, this pilot was shooting low approaches into the fog and had not filed an IFR -or- VFR flight plan. He wasn’t communicating with ATC at all! I don’t know if ATC could see him via ADSB, but if not, they could have cleared another pilot into the Class E without knowing he was there. The sad thing is that two hours later the fog had totally cleared and it was CAVU.

    Reply
  10. Jean-Francois P Reat
    Jean-Francois P Reat says:

    The pilot in question was an ophthalmologist with offices in Middlesboro, Harlan, and Whitesburg, KY. That would explain his flying to Harlan County I35 on the day of his accident- probably his primary destination that day. I35 has only the RNAV (GPS)-A approach with a 1400 foot MDA.

    I’ve never been to I35 but I have flown into Middlesboro 1A6. It used to be the home of Glacier Girl, the P-38 rescued from entombment in a glacier in Greenland. For a couple of years they had the cheapest 100LL in the area as well. Middlesboro lies at the base of a meteor crater and, while the approach isn’t quite as daunting as the picture suggests, it is probably best approached in VFR conditions.

    Reply
  11. Joseph
    Joseph says:

    Humans take a lot of unnecessary risks in daily life whether its driving, flying, working etc. For example; why fly at night in a single engine piston aircraft. If the engine quits its most likely 100% you are going to die but you hear pilots hear it all the time “i love flying at night”. Good luck with that! Flying IFR in low ceilings is another. Ya its easy to shoot an approach to minimums but try landing off field when you pop out at 250ft. Hope luck is on your side that day as well.

    Reply
  12. Jonas
    Jonas says:

    I’m not really sure what the article is implying – “judging from his diversions to other fields”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking off and taking a look as long as one has a well-thought-out diversion plan and lots of fuel. I think there is not enough to judge the guy (other than the final outcome) beforehand, unless I’m missing something. Baxter has ILS and RNAV so he would be fine even in very low ceilings.

    And then to throw in the weird doctor-bashing “oh because I knew another doctor who was bad”. Could say the same about golfers, engineers, or anybody else who flies planes.

    And please, in a widely read article, use proper terminology, including knowing and using proper distinction between IFR and IMC.

    I think this article is poor – either you had more info on this guy’s skills, in which case, yes, I agree, sit down and talk with him. But a skilled pilot flying in IMC under IFR is not necessarily “an accident waiting to happen” unless I am missing something here.

    Reply

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