Northwest Regional Crash, a Pilot’s Perspective

There is a video making the rounds from a crash that happened at my home airport of Northwest Regional Airport (52F) in Roanoke, TX, where a student pilot impacted a vehicle in a Cessna 172. As a pilot who has shot many approaches at that airport (and a true aviation enthusiast), I wanted to offer my perspective of what happened.

Right main and nose gear missing.

News reporters seem to be making a huge deal about Kelly Dr, the road that borders the north end of the active runway 17, where the word “STOP” is painted on the ground to warn drivers of aircraft overhead. This road is actually not managed by the airport, but I don’t see that as a safety issue. There are signs EVERYWHERE that help drivers understand where they are—not to mention that when you are on that road you see the runway right there. In the video it is unclear to me if the driver stopped and looked, but the result seems to clearly indicate that he did not. I’ve waited at the STOP line before in a car and watched planes flying in on final. If the weather is OK for landings at the airport (there are no instrument procedures here so fog or low clouds are not an issue), there is no reason why you can’t see or hear an aircraft. In the final NTSB report, the driver said he rolled his windows down and stopped, but I don’t believe he did that for a second. If he did, he would have heard or seen the aircraft and waited. The driver was the trigger that caused the accident—and if he had been paying attention like a self-proclaimed aviation enthusiast, he would have seen that aircraft and waited until it was over the runway to continue. But was it entirely the driver’s fault?

Landing and takeoff are the most dangerous portions of flight. Things happen very fast on landing, so pilots must be alert. If you go to YouTube and look for cockpit videos focused on the pilot’s face you will see very few eye blinks and a pupils-dilated, steady gaze out the window and at the instruments. Every time I fly that approach to 17, one of the things I am looking for is a driver who is not paying attention to the signs and crossing into my path. My hand is on the throttle and I can quickly goose it to go around if needed. And believe me, when I land, I’m going to find that car and give the driver a talking to. The pilot of the plane in question was a student, but a student at the flight school on the field. There is no question in my mind that he had landed aircraft dozens of times at that field and was well aware of the danger of cars (as well as other unwritten rules at that field). So, it’s not like this was his first time landing there. He should have seen the car and gone around.

But even that isn’t really the issue. Go watch the video and watch his approach right before he crosses the white fence on the north side of Kelly Dr. He sinks quickly which turns his descent into a dangerous curve.

One of the first things you are taught when shooting approaches is to have a stable, constant descent rate into the into the field. You learn this especially with fields with obstacles on either end of the runway, which is why the touchdown point you aim for is not at the end of the runway, but 1,000 feet from the end. Back to the video, you’ll notice that he sinks dramatically, clearing the fence by 2-3 feet, and slamming his landing gear right into the SUV. He wasn’t over the runway yet, but he was just 5 feet off the ground? That’s dangerous. Unsteady approaches during a checkride would cause an FAA examiner to think twice about passing that student. The final NTSB report shows calculations for what his altitude SHOULD have been, and it was much higher.

Was this a preventable accident? Absolutely! Both parties were at fault. A pilot with an unstable approach and a complacent driver who wasn’t paying attention to where airplanes are when near an active runway.

Does this impact my view of Northwest Regional Airport? No! I’m more concerned about the issues we’ve been having lately around working fuel pumps.

There have been a string of accidents related to that airport recently, but it’s nothing to do with the airport. In every case it was some form of pilot error. In fact, I went through all the NTSB accidents listed for that airport and this is the first time a car has been struck. When it comes down to who is at fault, the NTSB will blame the pilot for failing to maintain a safe altitude. I can’t say I disagree with that ruling, either. When talking to my family about this, I mentioned that steeper approaches wouldn’t allow something like this to happen, but as always, I will remain quite vigilant about traffic on Kelly Dr. when landing.

Pilots can use this as a safety reminder for airport operations. It could’ve been a whole lot worse. Thankfully it wasn’t. Everybody walked away with minor cuts and bruises. This is an easily preventable incident with a proper, stable approach and pilot awareness of the traffic around the runway.

Update: Here’s the final NTSB report.

  1. #1 by Champ flier on November 6, 2012 - 6:25 pm

    I agree. This will fall on the pilot or instructor. I fly from an airport that has a large spraying operation, they have no radios and don’t always land into the wind. If I even see a sprayer on the taxiway, I go around. Besides the Fact he was low and slow, he should have aborted. I would abort even if the car was stopped.

    • #2 by captbrando on November 6, 2012 - 6:39 pm

      Definitely agree there. I’ve done my share of go-arounds there when things just don’t feel right, and that would have been one for me.

  2. #3 by WillChan on November 7, 2012 - 12:46 am

    I agree with you he seemed a little low on the approach, but I hope you are still stating your aim point is always closer to you than your intended touchdown point to take into account ground effect. I haven’t flown into that field, but given the layout with a road so close to the field, it seems like you should always do a short field landing on this runway just in case.

    • #4 by captbrando on November 7, 2012 - 6:30 am

      Not a bad method. I would argue you should also expect to shoot considering a 50ft obstacle to be safe.

      • #5 by WillChan on November 9, 2012 - 7:02 pm

        I thought a short field always implies a 50ft obstacle. Then again I’m considering the 2012 Private

    • #6 by Mike on November 12, 2012 - 11:54 am

      Something to keep in mind her too is that the terrain north of 17 steadily rises. I know that he looked low, and he was, but I have seen many come in that low and land without incident. The rising terrain makes an aircraft on final, while observing from the ground, seem to be very low. My approach to landing on 17 is to set up for a short field landing and come in a little high. I want to make sure if an 18 wheeler pulls out in front of me that I will clear him. If you make the fence your imaginary 50 ft obstacle you should have no problems. I dont know if the 50 ft obstacle is actually part of the short field appraoch or if it is something that is in the PTS for demonstration purposes. It seems to me that you could shoot the approach as low as you wanted to provided you take appropriate measures to insure you dont hit anything.

      • #7 by Mike on November 12, 2012 - 11:59 am

        Just to clarify. I was talking about a short field approach in general when I stated that you should be able to come in as low as you deemed safe to do so. I am in no way suggesting that this applies on the approach to 17 at NWR.

      • #8 by captbrando on November 12, 2012 - 7:50 pm

        Fair enough. It does rise quite a bit, but I feel like the major dip in the approach is what really set things in motion.

      • #9 by Mike on November 13, 2012 - 8:50 am

        I watched the video again and I see what you mean about the dip. Not knowing what his airspeed was he may have gotten slow, no gust factor, and pushed the nose down to gain airspeed at the last minute. Or he was diving for the runway? Dont know but in either case it looks like he might have been in for a hard landing if the car had not been there.

  3. #10 by gentreau on November 7, 2012 - 3:12 am

    Looking at the airfield on Google Earth, I see that the runway has a displaced threshold some 400′ from the road, so it’s even more surprising that the pilot was so low. I’m not sure he’d have even made the tarmac, never mind the threshold.

  4. #11 by Private pilot in NC on November 8, 2012 - 6:48 am

    “I have a young daughter and wife, and they need me to be there to take care of them.” — The student pilot in the video. I understand being scared sh____ss as a student pilot from something like that. I hope later when it’s not so fresh on his mind he reconsiders the lessons he’s giving his daughter about accidents and adversity by quitting.

    • #12 by captbrando on November 8, 2012 - 7:28 am

      Had not thought about it that way! I think as a pilot we have all had to do an underoo check at some point. Mine was on the same solo cross-country route this student did and instead of carb heat ON, I did mixture FULL LEAN.


      Granted, there was no loss of property in my case. The only thing hurt was my pride. But it taught me that it is OK to bring your eyes back into the cockpit for a half-second to ensure I am pulling the right lever.

      • #13 by Champ flier on November 8, 2012 - 10:03 am

        On final all your settings should be complete. That is what downwind is for. Accidentally pulling the mixture on downwind will leave plenty of a safety margin to restart or glide to runway. We all have those. ” I cant believe I did that” moments. I’ve taken off on wrong runway but will never happen again because it taught me a good lesson. Now I always check compass. I can understand his giving up but by saying “I got a family” sends the wrong message about how safe flying really is. And the Cfi or airport manager saying he landed it like a pro isn’t helping. That airport needs a vasi connected to flashing lights to warn cars when a plane is approaching. I fly a tail dragger and have had some very interesting landings that ended off the runway narrowly missing the lights but I’m not giving up.

      • #14 by captbrando on November 8, 2012 - 1:35 pm

        A-men. It was a valuable lesson for me on workload management (I had gotten ahead of myself when thinking about the short runway that I forgot to complete the checklist on downwind).

  5. #15 by Len Boxwell on November 9, 2012 - 8:45 am

    The pilot was inexperienced and the car driver was careless. I blame the car driver but I don’t expect he was ever taught about airfield etiquette. So if it is not possible to brief all the drivers who might use the road then it should fall to the flying instructors to emphasise this potential hazard during training.

    I was once landing on a runway when a large lorry full of hardcore pulled out in front of me and continued in the same direction as me. I was young and foolish at the time so after initiating an overshoot I flew along side the lorry and then turned steeply in front of him. I can’t imagine he didn’t see me as my wing must have obliterated his view. I was incensed at the time and although it gave me a lot of satisfaction I should not have done it.

    The problem is that car drivers are not pilots or they would know better. The only answer is to teach pilots to compensate for such events.

    There is of course the possibility that the pilot, knowing that his wife was filming his flight may have deliberately made a low approach for the camera. As you said, nothing should distract you while you are landing an aircraft.

  6. #16 by Mike on November 9, 2012 - 1:22 pm

    I basically do agree with what you have said here. Both were at fault and the pilot was definitely to low. I fly out of this airport (52F) and have for many years. The threshold to 17 was not always displaced. On my commercial checkride I had to do short field landings on 17 when the threshold was at the end of the runway. It is a wonder that this hasnt happened in the past and I do remember hearing that the fence has been hit a time or two. At any rate I am glad that no one was seriously hurt. There needs to be better sinage for drivers. The “STOP” on the roadway is pretty faded out and no doubt that non pilots are going to have no clue what the hold short line means. I think they probably dont pay much attention to the other signs prior to the stop lines either. Just my two cents.

    • #17 by captbrando on November 9, 2012 - 1:41 pm

      Maybe we should just get together with some road paint and go nuts on the road? Vigilante Vandalism?

  7. #18 by Bryan on July 26, 2013 - 10:19 pm

    The only issue I have with this is that the pilot was a student, and the driver was not.
    I am 60 hours in and from time to time, I make ugly landings. We all do. Thermals, wind, etc… the plane flying has a lot more unknown variables than the car that should have just waited. I fly out of 52F as well. Almost daily it is a difficult place to land. No question. Driver should have waited he had only 1 variable to worry about and that was his brake pedal.

    • #19 by captbrando on July 27, 2013 - 7:14 am

      Good luck with your training! I specifically chose this airport for my training due to the challenges around the runway. I figured if I could land there in a crosswind, I could land anywhere.

  8. #20 by H on August 20, 2013 - 11:43 am

    Was the threshold still displaced way down the runway when the accident occurred? I cant tell from the pictures that I can find if it was still displaced far down the runway or if it had already be moved back closer to the end.

    • #21 by captbrando on August 20, 2013 - 11:45 am

      The threshold has always been displaced in the same spot, at least as long as I have been flying out of there (2008).

      • #22 by Mike on August 20, 2013 - 12:54 pm

        It has not always been displaced. I did my commercial ride in 98 and it was at the end of the runway. Made short field very interesting. I dont know when they moved it but I heard it was because the barbed wire fence was getting clipped quite a bit.


      • #23 by captbrando on August 21, 2013 - 6:09 am

        Ahh, gotcha!

  9. #24 by HL on August 20, 2013 - 1:01 pm

    reason I was asking was a new Google earth shot (2013) seems to show threshold about 30 ft. from end of paved area in the rounded out area. Is it still about 400 ft down the paved area, I cant tell as I have seen two pictures now?

    • #25 by captbrando on August 21, 2013 - 6:10 am

      Interesting, I had not taken that view. You are correct, it is not displaced as it used to be, and in fact you can see where the old paint was removed in the Google Earth shot. The touchdown spot is still farther down the runway, but there is no more displacement.

  10. #26 by Johan on September 6, 2013 - 2:51 pm

    1- “student pilot”
    2- SUV did not give way to airplane.

    Even if his landing was total s&%t, and there was not a single stop sign nor a single marking on the road, how in the world do you shift any blame on the “student pilot?”

    The video shows the SUV moving at the last minute. At that point, the low time pilot would have been concentrating on his “aim point” and the upcoming flare.

    There was no way for the student to avoid that SUV.

    Are we teaching students to look left and right, 30ft of the ground on short final?

    This is beyond dumb. Did some of you forget what it was to learn how to fly or what?

    SUV at fault.

    That’s my 2 cents.

    • #27 by captbrando on September 6, 2013 - 6:05 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Johan! Unfortunately, neither the NTSB nor I will agree with you here. Regardless of where the SUV is, the pilot’s approach was both unstable and too shallow. Pilots, student or not, are expected to operate free of obstacles in all phases of flight. And we had better be teaching students to look left and right on short final, or else they will develop tunnel vision which is extremely dangerous.

      Was the driver of the SUV not paying attention? Yep, absolutely. But the pilot is the one who should have maintained enough altitude and been watching for cars. I trained at that airport (much like this student who did ultimately finish his training and get his ticket) and you are instructed to watch for cars on your approach.

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