A few weeks ago, my friend and helper on the HP Media Vault Yahoo Group, Chris, was asking me some questions about taking his first trip to the EAA convention in Oshkosh this summer. Chris found me through my Media Vault website and it turns out that we share a lot of interests. He was the first Media Vault owner to compile the Linux kernel which impressed me because he had no prior Linux experience and was only 14 years old at the time. He’s been a highly valued source of help in providing product support and also runs his own Yahoo Group called Hacking the HP Media Vault. He even runs his own computer repair business. Look him up if you’re in the St. Louis area and need some computer help.
One of the interests we share is aviation. The annual EAA convention at Oshkosh, called Airventure, is coming up next week and Chris is planning to attend it with his dad. He was asking some questions a few weeks ago about the byzantine pricing schemes the EAA uses for admission and was having some trouble trying to figure out if his junior membership qualified him for a guest admission pricing for his dad. He wasn’t getting anywhere with the folks at the EAA since it was an unusual request. Most junior or student members have at least one parent who is a member of the EAA and so the people who staffed the help desk hadn’t encountered a situation like this before. I figured that I would call upon someone who I knew who helped write the Airventure admission software for the EAA, Geoff Peck, to help sort things out.
Geoff Peck and I go way back. Geoff was the originator of Usenet’s rec.aviation subgroups back around 1992. Prior to that, there was a single rec.aviation group of which I was an avid reader and occasional contributor. I always admired the way Geoff answered aviation-related questions. His responses were always so well-reasoned and professional. Always calm and authoritative, his writing style was what I aspired to sound like when I wrote.
It had been a few years since I had communicated with Geoff. At one time, he used to organize daily meetings for lunch at Oshkosh, with everyone meeting at the base of the control tower around noon. He’d also help organize a dinner at the Granary, and he’d pass around his laptop for people to use to make a rec.aviation posting entitled “Live from Oshkosh”. This was back in the early 90’s, which was long before the Internet and Web became mainstream. It was even before Deja News (now Google Groups) began archiving the Usenet postings, so much of this history is lost to time. I would look forward to seeing Geoff each year, manning the booth for his flight planning company, Enflight, patiently talking with customers and eager to help other pilots.
So, I did a quick Google search on his name to get to his personal website and make sure I had a good email address for him. You can imagine my concern when the first hit Google returned was entitled: “Remember Geoff Peck” at his personal website. I read with dismay that he had died in a plane crash in Colorado on his way back from Oshkosh in August, 2006. I read the NTSB report with astonishment that Geoff, a highly skilled 4400-hour ATP-rated flight instructor, would perish in a classic box canyon trap.
Today I was reminded about the incident again when I got an email from the AOPA describing his accident. Here is the text of it:
“On Aug. 7, 2006, the pilot of a Piper PA-28R-201 Arrow was returning to California after attending EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis. While attempting to navigate through mountainous terrain northwest of Salida, Colo., the pilot made a wrong turn and flew into a box canyon. Unable to outclimb the terrain, the aircraft struck a stand of pine trees and came to rest inverted. The crash killed the 4,400-hour airline transport pilot and seriously injured his passenger.
Making their way west from Oshkosh, the San Jose-based pilot and his passenger had arrived at Harriet Alexander Field (elevation 7,523 feet msl) in Salida around 8 p.m. on the day before the accident. The following morning, the pilot used his laptop computer to obtain a DUATS weather briefing and file a VFR flight plan to Milford, Utah. The density altitude in Salida that morning was about 9,400 msl, meaning aircraft flying in the area would perform as though they were about 2,000 feet higher than their actual altitude.
According to the airport manager, the pilot asked which route he should take to Utah. The pilot wanted to fly west across Monarch Pass (elevation 11,312 feet msl). The manager suggested that he instead fly south through the lower-elevation Poncha Pass before turning west. The pilot ignored the advice. The airplane took off around 10 a.m. and turned toward Monarch Pass.
The Arrow flew west along U.S. Highway 50, which eventually runs through Monarch Pass toward Utah. Over the town of Maysville, however, the pilot began following County Road 240, which runs northwest through a box canyon for about 10 miles before dead-ending near the canyon’s terminus.
Several witnesses saw a low-wing, single-engine airplane flying northwest up the canyon. One witness, located about two miles from the accident site, went to investigate when the aircraft failed to fly back out. He discovered the wreckage and the lone survivor sitting on a rock nearby. The injured passenger had no memory of the events leading to the accident.
The Arrow crashed at 10:20 a.m. at an elevation of about 12,000 feet msl. Terrain surrounding the accident site quickly rises to between 13,000 and 14,000 feet msl. The aircraft’s throttle was found in the full-forward position. The vertical speed indicator showed a climb rate of 130 fpm. NTSB investigators estimated the Arrow’s groundspeed at the time of the crash was 59 knots.
The board concluded that inadequate preflight planning and preparation caused the accident. Contributing factors were the pilot’s lack of familiarity with the geographical area, his becoming lost and disoriented, his decision to disregard the advice of local pilots, and the high density altitude, which reduced the airplane’s climb performance.
This accident illustrates the unique hazards of mountain flying. Summer temperatures can push the density altitude to heights that approach or exceed a light aircraft’s service ceiling, despite what the altimeter might be reading. Moreover, to a pilot unfamiliar with the terrain, the mouth of one canyon can look very much like another. Is it a mountain pass leading to the relative safety of lowlands beyond—or a dead end? Like the proverbial blind choice between the lady and the tiger, picking the wrong door can end very, very badly.”
I tried to imagine the decision-making that had led up to the accident and I have begun to wonder if Geoff had a weather issue like mountain obscuration and chose to fly northward to see if he could get around it. In doing so, he inadvertently followed a box canyon that he was unable to climb out of. I’m surprised that despite the mention of the AWOS weather conditions at Monarch Pass, weather was never mentioned in the cause of why, instead of flying over Monarch pass, Geoff would fly north and end up in a box canyon. The Monarch Pass AWOS reported at 9:50 a.m.:
Wind, 210 degrees at 14 knots; visib
ility, less than 1/4 statute mile, light snow; ceiling, 100 feet overcast; temperature, 7 degrees C.; dew point, 6 degrees C.; altimeter, 30.82 in. Hg
The accident investigation seems to indicate that he was lost, believing he was over Monarch Pass when in fact he was 8 miles north. After looking at the AWOS report, I can’t help think that Monarch Pass was not safe to fly through with a 100′ ceiling and so Geoff headed north looking for a more favorable weather conditions. It surprises me that there was no mention of the mountain obscuration as being a factor in this accident. Also, not taking the advice to use Poncha Pass is understandable too. Poncha Pass doesn’t cross the continental divide. So even after crossing Poncha Pass, it would be necessary to immediately turn west and cross the continental divide at an elevation similar to that of Monarch Pass (11,312 feet MSL).
I can attest to the fact that the Rockies can be difficult to climb over, especially in the summer when density altitude becomes a bigger factor, and with any amount of westerly wind, there will likely be down drafts making the climbing more difficult as you fly from east to west. Also, trying to squeeze under some low ceilings to clear a mountain pass can be a particularly bad idea.
We will miss Geoff, but not the final flying lesson he taught us and that is to be careful flying around the Rocky Mountains, especially when attempting to cross over them.