Year-old crash could offer insight to Fossett disappearance
September 19, 2007
WASHINGTON – A. Scott Crossfield was flying through thick clouds 10,000 feet above rugged Georgia wilderness when turbulence began to batter his single-engine plane.
The legendary test pilot, who, for a moment in history, was the fastest man alive, had cheated death many times. But not this time. An hour into a flight home from Alabama to Manassas, Va., Regional Airport, Crossfield plowed straight into an intense thunderstorm. He banked and tried to turn around. But it was too late.
“Atlanta,” Crossfield calmly radioed to controllers, “this is Seven Nine X-ray. I’d like to deviate south. Weather.” Those were his last known words.
The wind tore at his Cessna. In the next 30 seconds, the plane plummeted 6,000 feet, broke apart and plunged the last 4,000 feet into the woods in two mangled heaps.
It was an incongruous end for such an accomplished aviator, akin to a NASCAR driver being killed in a minivan on the way to the supermarket. This was a pilot who had flown supersonic rocket planes, broke Mach 2 and helped design the X-15, a rocket plane that touched the edge of space.
He made the cover of Life magazine in 1958 and was profiled in Tom Wolfe’s bestseller “The Right Stuff.”
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His death in April 2006 has left his family and friends wondering how such a skilled pilot could blunder into such a nasty storm. Even at 84, he was too experienced, too meticulous, too smart to die that way, they say, echoing recent refrains about record-setting aviator Steve Fossett, who vanished in a small plane after taking of near Minden on Sept. 3.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been investigating Crossfield’s crash for 11Ú2 years and is expected to vote any day on the probable cause. In investigative reports released this summer by the NTSB, some clues have emerged.
Investigators found that an air traffic controller didn’t warn Crossfield about the foul weather, the reports show. But they also studied Crossfield’s actions and his decision to fly despite questionable conditions. One of the first lessons taught to all pilots is one Crossfield constantly reiterated: You, the aviator, are ultimately responsible for your life.
Crossfield knew that experience is not insurance, that there are no guarantees in life.
“Death is the handmaiden of the pilot,” Crossfield wrote in 1960. “Sometimes it comes by accident, sometimes by an act of God.”
Crossfield “is considered one of the all-time best test pilots in this country, maybe the world,” said Donald Lopez, a friend, former test pilot and deputy director of the National Air and Space Museum. “It is sort of ironic that he died in a small plane like that.”
In 1953, Crossfield made history by breaking Mach 2 – twice the speed of sound – in the Douglas Skyrocket. Before lighting off the engines, he said a simple prayer: “Don’t let me goof this one.”
He held the record for three weeks until Chuck Yeager flew Mach 2.5.
Crossfield next joined North American Aviation, where he helped design the X-15, a cutting-edge rocket plane that he flew at nearly three times the speed of sound and up to 88,116 feet.
By 1977, he was a technical consultant to the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology. He retired in 1993.
By the late 1980s, he had been without his own plane for two decades. Test pilots rarely made a lot of money, and he was no exception. He had written an autobiography, but it didn’t sell well. He had six children and a government job.
His wife couldn’t handle his constant talk of airplanes. “I urged him to buy” one, said Alice Crossfield, 87, who married Crossfield in 1943. “I couldn’t think of anything better for him to spend the money on.”
At 68, Crossfield bought a Cessna 210A. He tried to fly once or twice a week and took trips nationwide to visit friends and relatives, recording each journey on a U.S. map at his home.
In his final days, Crossfield had flown to Alabama to meet with his good friend Judith Rice, then a top official at the Civil Air Patrol, and to speak to new Air Force officers at the Maxwell-Gunter base.
Rice picked up Crossfield at the Air Force base at 7 a.m. Crossfield had reviewed forecasts and planned to work his way around the weather. He didn’t want to wait too long because local airspace was going to be shut down for a visit by President Bush to Tuskegee University.
If he waited until after the restrictions were lifted, he might have trouble returning to Manassas at night, with his diminishing eyesight.
Crossfield conducted a rigorous preflight inspection, even climbing atop the wing to stick a finger in the fuel tank to verify the readings on the gauges.
Because of poor visibility, he waited to take off so he could get back safely if he had a malfunction. By 9 a.m., he was ready to go. Rice watched as he took off and disappeared into the sky.
Heading northeast, Crossfield was passed from air traffic controller to controller. At 11:01 a.m. he checked in with controller Olin Hill at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center. Hill, who joined the FAA in 1982, acknowledged Crossfield’s response, according to transcripts of the radio calls and the recently released reports. He declined to be interviewed.
Hill noticed that his radar scope was displaying heavy rain in the plane’s path but didn’t warn Crossfield, he told investigators. He said he didn’t think the radar data were timely, as is sometimes the case. He said he would have told Crossfield about the weather had the pilot asked, the reports show.
According to the NTSB report, Hill violated FAA rules that require controllers to issue weather reports to pilots if they don’t have any higher-priority tasks, such as keeping planes apart.
But avoiding weather is considered primarily the pilot’s responsibility. And safety experts say Crossfield could have taken simple steps to avoid the crash: Postponed his trip for a day or requested regular weather updates from controllers.
Regular inquiries about the weather “may have sensitized the controller” to Crossfield’s predicament, said Bruce Landsberg, executive director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Air Safety Foundation. “It is a shared responsibility between pilot and controller. … You have to make sure a message is sent and a message is received.”
By 11:10 a.m., one minute after his final radio call about deviating away from the storm, Crossfield was dead.
A few months after the crash, the NTSB returned some of the wreckage to his family. A door, a twisted propeller and pieces of aluminum lean against a fence next to his house, a constant reminder.
Alice Crossfield says she can’t let it go.
“That is him out there, you know,” she said.