Plane crash shows risks inexperienced pilots face in mountain areas

A single-engine plane crash at the Loveland Ski Area that claimed the life of an Ohio family highlights the importance of mountain flight training – and the deadly consequences a lack of training can produce.

On June 30 James Kerker of Raymond, Ohio, was attempting to navigate a mountain pass along Interstate 70 west of Denver when he crashed in a forested area near the top of a Loveland Ski area chairlift.

Rico Argentati, an eyewitness who was hiking in nearby Herman Gulch at the time, described the crash to 9News. “I heard this plane coming up the valley. I knew right away it was too low. It tried to turn around. It made a 180-degree turn to the left, and it dropped below the ridge. It crashed just on the other side of the ridge, and I saw a huge plume of smoke coming up,” Argentati said.

Summer weather conditions – high temperatures at high altitude reduce air density and make it difficult for planes to climb – may have contributed to the crash. Experts also believe that the out-of-state pilot may have not have properly understood the challenges of flying through mountains. It seems that non-Coloradans commonly fly in the state without undergoing mountain flight training.

“They’re used to flying point-to-point, at 3,000 to 4,000 feet, and they come up here and all of a sudden they’ve got a big mountain,” Howard McClure, a flight instructor at the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, told 9News. “They tend to fly into them.”

McClure emphasizes the effects of weather and air density on high-altitude trips to students. He also makes sure that pilots maintain enough elevation to complete a full turn back in case of an emergency.

Greg Feith, a Denver aviation-safety consultant, says that other planes have crashed in the area. “It sounds like the pilot may have been flying very low over Interstate 70, realized that he wasn’t going to be able to fly through the tunnel, as well as over the tunnel or around the tunnel and tried to make a retreating turn,” Feith said in a USA Today article.

Ohioan James Kerker was on vacation with his wife and 6-year-old son en route to Moab, Utah, from Broomfield, Colo., when the crash occurred. They’d been airborne for less than an hour. Kerker was piloting a Piper PA 28-235 registered in his name.

Small planes such as the Piper do not have enough performance to out-climb Rocky Mountain terrain. When they attempt to, the plane can stall and crash, which appears to be what happened in this case. The Loveland crash was the 25th fatal aircraft accident in Colorado in the last 12 months.

Not all Colorado plane crashes are the result of pilot error. An aviation accident can potentially be the fault of numerous parties, including the aircraft manufacturer, the maintenance provider, and air traffic control and weather service providers.

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