Pilot killed in plane crash in New Mexico

Posted on Tue, Nov. 05, 2002

                   Pilot killed in plane crash in New Mexico
                   Associated Press

                   LAS VEGAS, N.M. — A single-engine airplane crashed south of Las Vegas, N.M., killing the pilot of the craft,
                   authorities said.

                   Ralph Steenson, listed with a Cummings, N.D., address, died Sunday when the Cirrus SR20 he was in crashed
                   near McAllister Lake Wildlife Refuge, officials said.

                   "The pilot was the only occupant of the plane," said Lt. Rob Shilling of the New Mexico State Police.

                   The crash was the second this year in New Mexico involving a Cirrus SR20.

                   Two FAA investigators and one investigator from the National Transportation Board were being sent to New
                   Mexico to determine the cause of the crash, he said.

                   Cirrus Design Corp., based in Duluth, Minn., will participate in the crash investigation, said Bill King, the
                   company's vice president for business administration.

                   Steenson was flying from Fargo, N.D., to Albuquerque when the crash occurred between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., said
                   John Clabes, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration's southwest region.

                   Steenson had not filed a flight plan and "was not talking to any air traffic controllers or anything" before the
                   crash, Clabes said.

                   The Cirrus SR20 is equipped with an airframe parachute deployed by a solid-fuel rocket from the rear of the
                   airplane. The parachute is designed to position itself over the airplane's center of gravity, lowering the craft at
                   almost 27 feet per second.

                   It was not immediately known whether the parachute deployed on Steenson's airplane, King said.

                   The parachute is a last line of defense in the event the airplane is not controllable, King has said.

                   Steenson was a valued Cirrus customer who had toured the company's factory, King said.

                   "It's a tough thing. Not only do we know our customers, but the fact of the matter is, we end up getting to know
                   their families," King said. "We all feel a huge sense of loss."

                   A Cirrus SR20 crashed May 28 east of Angel Fire, shortly taking off from the airport at the northern New Mexico
                   ski resort.

                   The pilot, John E. Swanstrom Jr., 58, of Duluth, Minn., was killed.

                   The NTSB has not yet issued a final investigative report on that crash.

The report below indicates a ceiling of 500 feet (and 10 miles vis???). Am I misreading the metar?

Regis#: 566T Make/Model: SR20 Description: CIRRUS
Date: 11/03/2002 Time:

Event Type: Accident Highest Injury: Fatal Mid Air: N Missing: N
Damage: Unknown

City: LAS VEGAS State: NM Country: US


INJURY DATA Total Fatal: 1
# Crew: 1 Fat: 1 Ser: 0 Min: 0 Unk:
# Pass: 0 Fat: 0 Ser: 0 Min: 0 Unk:
# Grnd: Fat: 0 Ser: 0 Min: 0 Unk:

WEATHER: LVS METAR 031953Z AUTO 09011KT 10SM OVC005 00/M02

Activity: Unknown Phase: Unknown Operation: General Aviation

Departed: UNK Dep Date: Dep. Time:
Destination: UNK Flt Plan: UNK Wx Briefing: U
Last Radio Cont: UNK
Last Clearance: UNK

FAA FSDO: ALBUQUERQUE, NM (SW01) Entry date: 11/04/2002 #

If you were are not a Cirrus owner and do not have a general knowledge of GA airplanes, what would your impression be of a Cirrus aircraft after reading this AP account of the crash?

Lets all remember that this accident is a tragedy to a member of our community, his family and friends. I’m sure that we all wish his family the best in coping with the loss of a loved one.

I think some speculation is very normal. Most of us try to learn from the event in an effort not to duplicate the results. Perhaps we also try to reassure ourselves that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes or that we could have done something to avoid the situation. But as Mike said on the Members forum - Our friends and families all believe that we are the most conservative, safety conscious pilots. I’ll bet that was the case here as well.

And before we all get into speculating on the cause(s), let’s remember, but for the grace of God it could have been any one of us.


Yes, you are reading this properly. This accident was discussed on the Members Forum, but here are some of the weather details that I posted:

As I was digging into this a little more, I just got a chill down my back. Here’s what I found (keep in mind that this is only observations in my own mind and is not to be misconstrued to represent the actual forecast the pilot was offered – we don’t know if he received a briefing)

Here was the TAF he would have likely seen before departing earlier in the day. This is the TAF for KLVS from 12Z-12Z on 3 Nov issued at 1139Z.

KLVS 031139Z 031212 16007KT P6SM FEW010 SCT250
FM1400 02012KT P6SM BKN010 BKN250
FM1800 08010KT P6SM BKN030 BKN200
FM2200 12008KT P6SM SCT030 BKN200
FM0200 13006KT 5SM BR SCT010 BKN020
FM0800 13006KT 5SM BR VCSH SCT005 BKN010=

This certainly looks like a VFR forecast for an arrival around 22Z. This was amended as follows at 1354Z:

KLVS 031354Z 031412 17007KT P6SM SCT010 SCT250
BECMG 1415 04012KT OVC008
FM1600 02012KT P6SM BKN015 BKN250
FM1800 08010KT P6SM SCT030 BKN200
FM2200 12008KT P6SM SCT050 BKN200
FM0200 13006KT 5SM BR SCT010 BKN020
FM0800 13006KT 5SM BR VCSH SCT005 BKN010=

Still VFR for the arrival time. Here was the weather reported at the time of these forecasts:

KLVS 031153Z AUTO 19009KT 10SM CLR 01/M05 A3006 RMK AO2 SLP137 FZRANO $=

KLVS 031253Z AUTO 20013KT 10SM CLR 02/M06 A3005 RMK AO2 SLP136 FZRANO $=

KLVS 031353Z AUTO 19007KT 10SM CLR 03/M08 A3006 RMK AO2 SLP143 $=

Then at 1417Z:

KLVS 031417Z 031412 04009KT P6SM BKN015
TEMPO 1416 04013G20KT 1/4SM FZFG VV001
FM1800 07010KT P6SM SCT020 BKN200
FM2200 12008KT P6SM SCT050 BKN200
FM0200 13006KT 5SM BR SCT010 BKN020
FM0800 13006KT 5SM BR VCSH SCT005 BKN010=

Still VFR during the arrival time, however, the forecast for the early morning hours gets real interesting with freezing fog and with a vertical visibility of 100 ft!

The next observation at 1453Z follows this forecast. Notice the UPB43E52 which indicates that an unknown precip is falling (probably a result of FZRANO at the station). Also notice the wind shift. Likely that advection (movement of air in the horizontal) had something to do with the amendment to the forecast.

KLVS 031453Z AUTO 10016KT 1/4SM FG VV001 00/00 A3011 RMK AO2 WSHFT 1400 UPB43E52 SLP174 FZRANO $=

Next, the 18Z-18Z forecast gets issued at 1737Z. Notice that the forecast is still for VFR at the time of arrival.

KLVS 031737Z 031818 10009KT P6SM SCT005 OVC009
TEMPO 1819 BKN005
FM1900 13008KT P6SM SCT010 BKN030
FM2200 12008KT P6SM SCT050 SCT150 OVC200
FM0200 13006KT P6SM SCT080 BKN150
FM0600 16008KT P6SM SCT015 OVC090
FM0900 16006KT 5SM BR SCT005 BKN030
TEMPO 0912 1SM BR BKN005
FM1200 18006KT 2SM BR OVC010
PROB30 1218 1/2SM SN FZFG VV002=

Here’s where it gets very concerning. The current weather conditions at the time of this forecast were still crappy:

KLVS 031753Z AUTO 07011KT 9SM OVC003 01/00 A3019 RMK AO2 CIG 002V007 SLP203 FZRANO $=

KLVS 031853Z AUTO 07011KT 10SM OVC003 00/M01 A3019 RMK AO2 SLP210 FZRANO $=

It appears the wind was forecasted to shift around even though it was still from the east and the low overcast still persisted.

Finally by 1938Z, the forecast was amended again:

KLVS 031938Z 032018 08008KT P6SM BKN005
TEMPO 2024 SCT005 BKN015
FM0000 11006KT 5SM BR SCT005 BKN030
TEMPO 0509 1SM BR BKN005
FM0900 18006KT 2SM BR OVC010
PROB30 0915 1/2SM SN FZFG VV002=

However, this never truly represents the nature of the beast. The following was the observations over the next few hours, likely very critical to the pilot’s peril. In fact, it only gets worse.

KLVS 031953Z AUTO 09011KT 10SM OVC005 00/M02 A3019 RMK AO2 SLP206 FZRANO $=

KLVS 032053Z AUTO 6SM BR OVC005 M01/M02 A3020 RMK AO2 SLP213 FZRANO $=

KLVS 032153Z AUTO 07007KT 8SM OVC007 M01/M02 A3020 RMK AO2 SLP217 FZRANO $=

KLVS 032253Z AUTO 10SM OVC005 M01/M02 A3022 RMK AO2 SLP221 FZRANO $=

KLVS 032353Z AUTO 8SM OVC009 M01/M02 A3022 RMK AO2 CIG 007V011 SLP224 FZRANO $=

This doesn’t mean that a pilot should have tried to descend through this layer. If the destination was KABQ, then there may have been some other issues that led to the accident that were not weather related. KABQ is 80 miles to the west-southwest. However, it does show you that a forecast can be significantly off and you need to always have a plan B.


This article about the sad events in Las Vegas, N. M. is an all too typical example of poor journalism. It makes no reference to the cruddy weather at the time and location of the crash, and of course throws in the usual red herring that the pilot “had not filed a flight plan.” (Other news reports did a much better job.)

There’s another example of less-than-stellar aviation reporting in today’s Los Angeles Times. In http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-et-roug5anov05.storyan article about politicians and reporters flying in GA airplanes, the author refers to a “Citation Cessna” and a plane hitting an “air pocket.” Sigh…


In reply to:

the author refers to a “Citation Cessna”

Interesting, it may have already been edited by the time I read it, because it now refers correctly to a 'Cessna Citation".


Roger and others–

As a journalist (who spent nearly 11 years at the AP early in his career), I thought it was a darn good article. It had multiple sources, including the FAA and the manufacturer, and it got the facts right. Even more, it didn’t speculate on the cause of the crash.

In fact, I’m not sure the weather will turn out to be relevant. I’ve covered aviation accidents for many years, and you rarely see a VFR-into-IMC accident come down wings level, skipping across the flat ground. (Apparently the plane cartwheeled after the first few bumps on the ground.) Las Vegas, N.M., was not his destination, and this was a low layer of clouds that apparently he could have been above if cruising. Weather at ABQ was better.

There could be lots of reasons why a 75-year-old pilot came down wings level hours into a long trip. It may turn out to be weather-related, but I’m certainly glad the reporter didn’t speculate since it’s not an obvious cause.

As far as a flight plan goes, it’s one of the few facts you get from FAA shortly after a GA accident. It’s important enough for NTSB to include it prominently in every preliminary report. And frankly, I think it does signify something about the caution a pilot took in making the flight. It seems to me to be prudent on a long cross-country trip over remote terrain to file a flight plan. It’s even more prudent to make use of flight-following so that ATC knows where you are, and you have a better chance at spotting traffic. Lack of a flight plan helps explain to a general audience when this guy wasn’t on the radio.

Journalists, just like pilots, certainly make plenty of mistakes. And I suppose this posting demonstrates journalists can be just as sensitive about their profession as Cirrus owners are about their planes. As one who loves both journalism and my SR20, I do think it’s worth remembering, amid nit-picks, that gathering news on deadline ain’t easy.

–Scott M.
N262GM, SR20 #1129


I noticed the error in the print version, which is harder to fix!


I had a friend in the Philippines who’s company flew a King Air. The press referred to it as a “Lear Jet”. He sent them a correction, and the next article called it a “King Lear”.

Marty: I am so saddened to hear of another Cirrus pilot losing his life. One is to many. I fully agree with you - but for the Grace of God…
I am so appreciative for this forum and members weighing in on what may have gone wrong. Let’s try and learn from these incidents/accidents so we can all benefit.
Our prayers continue for the family and loved ones.

David Schwietert


I appreciate your thoughtful - and thought-provoking - post. I hadn’t thought of this from the journalist’s viewpoint.

I do have a question: You state, “It’s even more prudent to make use of flight-following so that ATC knows where you are, and you have a better chance at spotting traffic” – something I believe most would agree with. But do we know whether this pilot did, or didn’t, use flight-following?


Mike, on flight following, I believe there is a consistent note in all the news stories that the pilot “was not talking to anybody.” If I remember correctly, the initial FAA report said that “last radio contact” was UNK.

FWIW I agree with Scott about the story – but that may reflect our shared occupational bias.

Yes, John Clabes at FAA said he was not talking to ATC.

Perhaps we’ll know more when NTSB posts a preliminary report.