CFIT, controlled flight into terrain


I’ve always found this term to be an oxymoron. Why would anyone fly into terrain if they have control? Maybe it is because they have control of the aircraft, but have lost control of the situation.

A pilot and his passenger lost their lives in a Cessna 180H when it crashed into a mountain at the 8,850 foot level. The pilot had obtained a weather briefing that indicated the weather was VMC in the mountain passes between Calgary and Cranbrook, B.C. The weather at Calgary/Springbank Airport was few clouds at 4,000 feet AGL, and at 8,000 feet AGL and broken clouds at 24,000 feet.

The reported weather at Cranbrook was few clouds at 13,000 feet AGL and an overcast ceiling at 25,000 feet. The GFA indicated broken cloud layers were expected between 9,000 feet and 18,000 feet with embedded ACC giving visibilities of more than 6 miles in light rain showers. Down flow winds on the eastern slopes of the Rockies and moderate turbulence were predicted.

Environment Canada’s analysis of conditions at the time of the accident in the vicinity of the accident site indicated scattered to broken cumulus based at 6,000 feet and topped at 7,000 feet and broken to overcast ACC based 8,000 to 9,000 feet and topped at 10,000 to 12,000 feet.

Two fire lookout tower operators located near the flight planned route indicated the higher mountain ridges were obscured at the time of the accident as did another pilot who flew the valleys.

Calgary radar tracked the Cessna 180 at 8,300 feet initially, then it descended to 7,900 feet and then commenced a climb and struck the mountain two minutes later in straight and level flight. The aircraft hit the ridge 50 feet below the top. It is possible that a down draft prevented the aircraft from clearing the ridge. There was even higher terrain within one mile of this ridge on the proposed aircraft’s track.

A Cessna 208 Caravan with a commercial pilot and a commercial pilot friend inadvertently entered cloud at about 2,000 feet on a flight from Vancouver to Victoria. Shortly thereafter they flew into a mountain at about 1,800 feet just below the Victoria VOR.

A C-172 pilot departed Trail, B.C. with his wife and three small children for a reunion in Manitoba. He delayed his departure for several hours waiting for the weather to improve. When he did depart, the weather was still marginal VFR.

It is possible he felt pressured into leaving when he did to avoid being caught over the mountains in the dark. It appears that the pilot was attempting to climb up a mountain pass beside some power lines when he realized that the terrain was climbing faster than he was. He attempted a turn away from the mountain, but too late and the aircraft crashed killing him, his wife and one of the children.

A Piper 140 Cherokee pilot with a navigator and an observer on board was conducting search and rescue mission near Nelson, B.C. He circled to gain altitude before entering a high altitude blind canyon as part of his search area. The aircraft was found with all three deceased.

The aircraft had contacted the canyon floor belly first in a flat attitude, consistent with a strong downdraft forcing the aircraft into the ground.

A DC 3 with two experienced pilots on board was flying from Vancouver to Victoria when they went into IMC. The pilots did not attempt a climb or a descent and were slow to initiate a turn, and flew into a mountain.

A Cessna 177 Cardinal with three men and their golfing equipment left Fairmont, B.C. for Red Deer, Alberta. The aircraft was found with the three deceased just below the top of a ridge east of Fairmont.

Another aircraft in the vicinity reported that there was significant mountain wave activity. The winds that day were from the west at 30 knots at 9,000 feet. Any wind greater than 25 knots across mountain ridges can produce mountain waves.

The main cause of CFIT accidents is poor planning or the lack of planning. The C-180 pilots should have never attempted the direct track based on the GFA and the most recent METARS.

The C-172 pilot should have extended his delay until the next day when the weather was expected to be much better.

The Cardinal pilot knew of the wind speed over the mountains, but either disregarded the possibility of mountain wave or didn’t know what wind speeds could produce mountain wave activity.

The Cherokee pilot was well aware of mountain winds and the downdrafts they can produce. On that particular day the winds were fairly light. Winds in the mountains can funnel and with the venturi effect can produce unexpectedly strong down drafts. He did not gain enough altitude for the possible wind conditions.

The Caravan pilot and his friend turned directly to the Victoria VOR as soon as they entered cloud. This positively established their position. They did not climb to the minimum sector altitude to ensure safe terrain clearance.

The DC 3 pilots were very complacent about their condition. They obviously thought they were clear of all of the terrain in the vicinity.

All of these pilots lost situational awareness due to the lack of planning and/or complacency or pressure. The result in all of the cases was the same.

Dale Nielsen is an ex-Armed Forces pilot and aerial photography pilot. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C., and currently flies air charters. He still freelances as a flying instructor and seminar facilitator. Nielsen is also the author of seven flight training manuals published by Canuck West Holdings.

Got an aviation safety story to tell? Dale Nielsen would like to hear from pilots who have educational aviation experiences to relate. Excerpts from these stories will be used in upcoming safety articles. Dale can be contacted via e-mail: