NTSB says spatial disorientation caused Cape Air crash

“Spatial disorientation” was the cause of the aircraft accident that killed veteran Cape Air pilot and Vineyard Haven resident David D. Willey on the night of Sept. 26, 2008, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has concluded. The NTSB issued its final report of the crash last week.

On a rainy Friday night, Mr. Willey, an experienced pilot who had flown in and out of airports around the world, took off from the Martha’s Vineyard Airport on a short repositioning flight to Boston’s Logan Airport, where he was scheduled to pick up passengers for a return flight to the Vineyard later that night.

Shortly after its 8:05 pm takeoff from Martha’s Vineyard Airport, the Cape Air twin engine Cessna 402 aircraft with no passengers on board and piloted by Mr. Willey, 61, crashed into the woods opposite Nip-N-Tuck Farm on State Road in West Tisbury. Mr. Willey died in the crash. Although the plane came down near several houses, no one on the ground was injured.

Investigators from the NTSB released a preliminary report weeks after the crash, but the final report was not released until May 28.

Spatial disorientation occurs when a person deprived of visual references loses the ability to correctly judge up from down. Pilots flying in poor weather or when the horizon is obscured are particularly vulnerable to spatial disorientation because of the gravitational forces experienced in flight. The condition is an important cause of fatal aircraft accidents, according to aviation experts.

The NTSB determined spatial disorientation was the probable cause of the crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren Bessette, when a single-engine Piper 32 Saratoga aircraft piloted by Mr. Kennedy crashed into the water seven and one-half miles off the shore of Aquinnah on the hazy night of Friday, July 16, 1999.

According to a Federal Aviation Administration report, tests conducted with qualified instrument pilots indicate that it can take as much as 35 seconds to establish full control by instruments after the loss of visual reference with the surface.

Dan Wolf, Cape Air president, told The Times Tuesday that his thoughts are still with Mr. Willey’s wife Jackie, his children and his extended family. Mr. Wolf said he had flown with Mr. Willey many times and had great respect for his flying skills.

Mr. Wolf said he could not comment on the accident findings because he did not participate in the investigation.

He added, “There is nothing in that report that would change my thinking that Dave was one of the best, most experienced, most competent pilots that Cape Air has ever had in our 21 year history,” he said. “And to this day we miss him not only as a pilot, but we miss him as a person as well.”

Mr. Wolf said Cape Air has an excellent safety record over millions of operations and works hard each day to maintain it. “I think the record speaks to that,” Mr. Wolf said.

Mr. Willey was married to Jackie Willey, a nurse, and had three children.

This week, the family issued the following statement: We are grateful to all those who helped bring this investigation to a close. We are thankful for family, friends and the community who continue to honor Dave’s passion for, devotion to and excellence in aviation. Because he loved life on the land, sea and especially in the air, we will always have him with us as we gently move forward.

NTSB report

The NTSB is an independent agency charged with determining the probable cause of transportation accidents and promoting transportation safety.

Generally, a preliminary accident report is available online within a few days of an accident. Factual information is added when available; and when the investigation is complete, the preliminary report is replaced with a final description of the accident and its probable cause.

The NTSB accident report is brief and matter-of-fact. It provides a straightforward description of the flight details and devotes one sentence to the cause of the accident.

“The pilot of the multi-engine airplane, operated by a regional airline, was conducting a positioning flight in night instrument meteorological conditions,” the NTSB reported. “After takeoff, the airplane made a slight left turn before making a right turn that continued until radar contact was lost. The airplane reached a maximum altitude of 700 feet before impacting terrain about three miles northwest of the departure airport.

“Post accident examination of the wreckage did not reveal any pre-impact failures. The weather reported at the airport, about the time of the accident, included a visibility of five statute miles in light rain and mist and an overcast ceiling at 400 feet. Analysis of the radar and weather data indicated that, with the flight accelerating and turning just after having entered clouds, the pilot likely experienced spatial disorientation.

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows: A loss of aircraft control due to spatial disorientation.”

Mr. Willey’s flying career began in the Navy and later included dropping fire retardant on California fires and spotting swordfish for Vineyard commercial fishermen. Prior to joining Cape Air, Mr. Willey flew large aircraft for Southern Air Transport all over the world.

He had 16,746 hours of total flying time in all aircraft, according to the NTSB.

Jesse Sonneborn, who lives at 5 Nip and Tuck Lane, heard the noise of the crash and ran out of his house to see what had happened, then called 911. In a story published in The Times of October 2, 2008 (“Cape Air crash claims the life of a Vineyard pilot”), Mr. Sonneborn reflected on Mr. Willey’s ability to miss both houses in the final moments before the plane crashed and expressed a view echoed by family and friends of the dead pilot: “It looks as if he did everything he could to avoid those houses. As far as I’m concerned, he was a hero,” Mr. Sonneborn said.