2014 Cirrus SR22 crash
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The aircraft was reportedly flying from Waukesha County Airport in Wisconsin to Manassas Regional Airport in Virginia when the pilot, a former Harley Davidson executive, Ronald M. "Hutch" Hutchinson became unresponsive and did not land at his destination. Two F-16s were sent to check on the small propeller aircraft, when it was observed that the pilot was unconscious. The jets escorted the aircraft until it finally ran out of fuel over the Washington Canyon approximately 50 miles SE of Wallops Island, VA.
On August 30, 2014, at 10:43 am EDT, the privately operated Cirrus SR22, registration N930RH, took off from Waukesha County Airport, WI, and leveled off at 21,000 feet. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Final Report, Hutchinson "maintained this altitude for about an hour", and at about 12 pm, Hutchinson "requested and received several descent clearances over the course of about 45 minutes" that brought his altitude to 13,000 feet.
In the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Final Report, it is stated that "the pilot’s communications over the next 10 minutes were consistent with impairment." At 12:49 pm Hutchinson made a request to descend from 13,000 feet to an unspecified altitude by stating "zero romeo hotel would like to uh" to which air traffic control (ATC) asked for clarification. For the next 2 minutes, the pilot opened communication but did not verbally reply. Hutchinson contacted ATC and asked a total of three times to descend but does not specify to what altitude. At 12:51 pm Hutchinson informed the ATC that "he was having some difficulties but did not state the nature of the problem", and immediately was "cleared to descend and maintain 9,000 feet." A minute later, Hutchinson had made no attempt to descend, but had made verbal confirmation of his cleared altitude of 9,000 feet. ATC prompted Hutchinson to descend by reaffirming his clearance, but Hutchinson replied by stating again that he had a problem. The controller told Hutchinson "Okay sir if you could start down to nine thousand that should help you out sir," to which he replied "I'll try."
Because oxygen is much more difficult to breathe at higher altitudes, pilots are required to have supplemental oxygen on flights lasting more than 30 minutes over 12,500 feet, so at 12:56, the controller asked Hutchinson if he had oxygen on board. The pilot replied with "I do" which was followed by another moment of open communication with no speaking. The controller asked him if he was wearing the oxygen mask, if it was working, and if it was at 100% (all of which the pilot affirmed) and finally advised the pilot to descend again. In response to this clearance, Hutchinson replied "Hang on a second," which was the last transmission from the pilot.
Following Hutchinson's last transmission at 12:57 pm, air traffic controllers and other pilots attempted to regain contact but could not reach the pilot. The aircraft maintained 13,000 feet before being intercepted by two F-16 fighter jets sent by the The North American Aerospace Defense Command. One of the intercept pilots, Colonel Mark Valentine in a statement given in an NTSB interview observed that there was one person onboard, slumped over the controls. Several attempts to communicate with Hutchinson were made during the time he was being escorted, including signals flares, radio calls, and disrupting his flight path.
At approximately 3:07 pm, Col. Valentine observed the aircraft apparently running out of fuel and beginning a slow descent towards the ocean. Ten minutes later, the aircraft glided into the ocean approximately 50 miles from Wallops Island off the coast of VA over the west wall of the Washington Canyon.
The pilot, Ronald Hutchinson, worked for 35 years at Harley Davidson as Senior Vice President and retired in 2009. A pilot for over 40 years, Hutchinson had over 4,000 hours of flight experience. From the NTSB Report:
[Ronald Hutchinson], 67, held an airline transport pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single engine land and multi-engine land. His most recent FAA second class was issued August 7, 2014. [Hutchinson] reported 3,360 total hours of flight experience on that date. The pilot's logbook was not available for review; however a review of the pilot's Cirrus Training Profile May 21, 2014 revealed the pilot reported 3,330 total hours of flight experience of which 3,216 hours were as pilot in command and 2,780 hours were in single engine airplanes. The pilot declared approximately 500 hours of experience with both the Avidyne Entegra Avionics and Garmin GNS 430/530 GPS systems. [He] had accrued approximately 50 total hours of flight experience in the accident airplane make and model....
All safety equipment was up to date, including CO detectors and the oxygen bottle assembly. In fact, in June 2014 a fixed oxygen system was installed, and the aircraft's last airworthiness certificate was issued July 8, 2014, only a few months before the accident.
Search and Investigation
A nearby fishing boat about a quarter mile away witnessed the accident. When they arrived at the scene of the crash, they attempted to put "lines on" the not yet submerged tail of the aircraft, but it sank "in a matter of seconds."
According to Petty Officer Nate Littlejohn, the US Coast Guard Base in Portsmouth, VA was notified at 2:40 pm about the aircraft's failure to land at Manassas Regional Airport, and flight into restricted airspace near Washington DC. In response to the crash, the Coast Guard sent an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and an HC-130 Hercules airplane from Air Station Elizabeth City in North Carolina, and the Coast Guard cutter Beluga from Virginia Beach. According to the fisherman who witnessed the incident, "the search was in vain because the Cirrus went down so quickly in about 85 fathoms, or over 500 feet, in the Washington Canyon." Only some of the aircraft was recovered: the engine cowling and the main landing strut with the wheel attached. The search was called off the following morning, at around 11:30am and so neither the aircraft nor pilot were recovered.
The probable cause of the crash according to the NTSB was the pilot's impairment and incapacitation.
Since aircraft nor the pilot were recovered, and no toxicology report nor inspection of the aircraft were conducted, the NTSB could not determine the exact cause of the accident. According to Hutchinson's wife, nothing unusual or traumatic had happened during the 72 hours prior to the accident flight, and the pilot was well-rested. Possible causes due to the pilot's age or the altitude of the flight include "stroke, cardiovascular event, carbon monoxide exposure, neurologic decompression sickness, or hypoxia."
Hutchinson confirmed that his supplemental oxygen was present and operating normally, however as evidenced by his impaired communication with ATC and flight pattern, hypoxia is a likely cause of the crash. The air traffic controllers from Cleveland Center, the last to have communications with Hutchinson, suspected he had problems with his oxygen and had become hypoxic. A similar event happened only weeks later to another small privately operated aircraft near Jamaica, which lead to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Air Safety Institute to issue a safety warning about identifying and preventing hypoxia. In addition, the crash is listed in a print ad from Aviation Technology for an altitude alerting device from 2014.
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