It was a nice Travelair

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Up and over the distant ridge lays the end of a flight

   Flying is very unforgiving of mistakes. Rod Kirby made one of those mistakes. On a simple, routine flight from Oroville to Santa Rosa, Rod slipped the surly bonds of this life and pressed his nice Beech Travelair into a granite slab on the side of Mt. St. Helena. He took with him his wife. He also took with him the imagination of so many who gaze skyward at each passing plane, and wonder of the view of those Gods who look down upon the ordinary  world.

As I struggled through he immensely thick and stubborn buckbrush, I wondered about this flight. Why in the world should a well equipped aircraft end up in a pile of confetti in this remote setting? It took me nearly an hour and a half to reach the sight. And I am one who has spent hours navigating similar rough terrain. I have learned to crawl with the bunnies and raccoons under the resistant vegetation that blankets much of Northern California. This wreck was one of the hardest that I have reached.

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The very distant access road to the top of the mountain

I am also a pilot. This may help to explain the morbid curiosity of returning to the crash sight. As a pilot, one can go from the glory of being above it all, to death in an instant. It doesn't need to be that way, yet certain circumstances lead the hapless pilot down the hall of horrors. The weather in Oroville on that day was likely cloudy, wintry but basically OK for flying. However the weather mostly likely got somewhat worse as they got closer to Santa Rosa. Many pilots seem perfectly happy flying at 3000 feet. That is usually above most of the obstacles in  the area. Unfortunately Mt. St. Helena sticks up like a sore thumb at 4400 feet. All of the instruments on board indicated that they were less than ten miles from the Sonoma County Airport. However the ceiling was getting lower and the pilot could see just fine looking down, but not so great looking ahead.

The right wing hit first. The outer third of the wing panel stopped against a rock while the rest of the airplane continued ahead for another 100 feet. The time between the initial contact and the final stoppage was less than the brain can recognize. There was no time to recognize danger. It was simply over instantly. It was so over that there was no time between life and the end. No suffering, no fright. Just the tunnel of light at the end of life. It was classic in may ways. This is the wreck that kills most of private, civil aircraft drivers and passengers. It was a flight into IFR conditions while trying to navigate by VFR methods. It could have worked. But Rod didn't look at the charts close enough and he made the most fatal of all mistakes.

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Looking past broken bushes towards Oroville

Ironically the crash sight was littered with Jeppsen approach plates. It was as if someone had carefully sprinkled the pieces of paper evenly over the one hundred foot radius of the crash scene. It was almost a punctuation mark on the flight.  As a pilot, I know the temptation to scud run, to sneak under the weather and avoid the convoluted, time absorbing bureaucracy of filing an IFR flight plan.

Starting in Oroville, the weather was OK. Santa Rosa was likely reporting a ceiling around 3000 feet, plenty for VFR.. By the time that the flight plan was approved, Rod and wife could already be in Santa Rosa....  Everything was fine for the first thirty minutes of the flight. With less than five minutes to the destination, Rod no doubt felt he had it made. Even if they went into the soup, they would shortly be able to let down to pattern altitude.

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Everything a pilot needs to know in one book...

The plane hit so hard that all of the structure in essence exploded, leaving only the the vertical fin in tact. Pieces of Plexiglas no bigger than two square inches covered the area. The right propeller was near the initial rock contact, the other still hooked to a stray engine at the bottom of the rock . Other than the tail section, no other piece of the aircraft was larger than the engines, both badly broken. Only two magnetos seemed to survive the impact. I didn't know the pilot, yet I shared with him a common experience. The wondrous, miracle of flight gives a person a unique perspective of this life. Each pilot knows of the dangers and face them in order to "reach out and touch the face of God".

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"All things shall perish from under the sun."