Plane crash site

A mountainous area near Woody Creek, close to the spot where an airplane using a parachute made an emergency landing on Jan. 27, is pictured earlier this week.

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board about the cause of a Jan. 27 aviation accident near Woody Creek indicates that bad weather and an “airspeed failure indication” played a role in the plane using a parachute to make an emergency landing on a steep, wooded hillside.

The NTSB report, posted to the federal agency’s accident report database on Wednesday, states that at 3:24 p.m. on Jan. 27, a Cirrus SR22T airplane with one pilot and one passenger on board “descended under the canopy of a Cirrus airframe parachute system (CAPS) and impacted trees and terrain” roughly 4 miles from the airport. Both the passenger and pilot, who according to the report is “instrument rated,” were uninjured. The airplane, however, sustained substantial damage.

“The airplane's empennage separated from its fuselage during the impact,” says the report.

The plane, registered to Noel Development LLC, according to the NTSB, was equipped with a parachute mounted on a small rocket that when activated is shot off the top of the aircraft. The rocket separates the chute from the body of the aircraft then the chute deploys, allowing the aircraft to float to the ground. It took off from Aspen-Pitkin County Airport at about 3:20 p.m., with plans to fly to the nearby Eagle County Regional Airport. 

“Day instrument meteorological conditions prevailed in the area about the time of the accident, and the flight was operated on an activated instrument flight rules flight plan,” the report says. That means that the pilot was flying using his instruments, rather than being able to rely solely on vision. 

Weather information included in the report as of 2:54 p.m. at the Aspen airport on the day of the accident shows that the cloud ceiling was about 900 feet above ground level with overcast conditions. Visibility was at 3 miles, with winds at 10 knots, gusting to 15 knots. Snow was present that afternoon but ended at 2:49 p.m., the report says, shortly before takeoff.

According to initial information from the Federal Aviation Administration, which works with the NTSB on aviation accident investigations, “the airplane’s pilot reported an airspeed failure indication. The pilot then lost ground contact and requested vectors back to [the Aspen airport.] The pilot later reported that he activated the chute and subsequently reported that the airplane was on the ground.”

That seems to match up with a narrative shared by a sheriff’s deputy the day after the crash. The pilot had reported that the plane’s “instruments went haywire” and were indicating that the engines were stalling, according to sheriff’s deputy Jesse Steindler. “He said something to the effect to me that he knew he was not stalling, yet he followed protocols and made a split-second decision whether to activate the parachute and he did. I imagine that was because he could not see anything out the window.” 

Steindler further noted that the mountains in the area of the crash top out at about 10,000 feet — which is likely close to the elevation where the plane was flying.

A team of more than two dozen Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteers reached the crash site, estimated at a 4- to 6-mile hike through waist-deep snow from the nearest road, at about 6:25 p.m. that evening, according to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. Though uninjured, the plane’s occupants — identified as Tyler and Kristina Noel of Verona, Wisconsin — were unprepared to spend the night as temperatures were dropping toward single digits. MRA brought them warm clothes, food and snowshoes, and all began the trek out at about 9:15 p.m. MRA personnel and the Noels were safely out of the field by 12:05 a.m.

Final report looks at all factors

A final report, in which investigators look at all information relevant to the cause of an accident, could take another 12 to 18 months. While the report comes from the NTSB, FAA investigators also have a role to play. 

According to an FAA spokesman, that agency’s job is to determine a “thorough flight profile evaluation/analysis looking for any anomalies or problems with the flight.” The agency spokesman wrote in an email that the FAA looks at navigation aids of the aircraft and airfield, if appropriate; the pilot’s rating and qualifications to fly that particular aircraft; the pilot’s medical records as well as his flight log; the maintenance log of the aircraft; weight and balance calculations; and weather conditions.

“These are the kinds of things we look at in our investigation and that information is turned over to the NTSB. They, then, determine cause,” the agency spokesperson wrote in an email.

Given the hard-to-reach nature of the crash site, it is unclear if the FAA has sent an investigator to the crash site; the NTSB has not.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.