NTSB indicates pilot may have used wrong code for destination
An 18-page report released by the National Transportation Safety Board on April 13 provides no definitive cause for the Sept. 5, 2015 plane crash in Western San Juan County that killed four California residents.
But the report suggests weather conditions were poor and that the pilot may have veered far off course by mistakenly entering the wrong 3-digit airport identifier into a handheld GPS device he reportedly used.
The report also raised serious questions about the 71-year-old pilot’s general fitness.
The flight left Barstow, Calif., at 7 a.m. on Sept. 5, 2015, with four California residents aboard, reportedly en route to Amarillo, Texas. The plane refueled in Flagstaff, Ariz., later that morning. It crashed in western San Juan County, far off its intended course, at about 2:08 p.m., according to the NTSB investigation.
The NTSB report issued last week indicated that the pilot of the twin-engine Cessna, Harold Joseph Raggio, of Big Bear, Calif., seemed to lack “situational awareness” while at the airport in Flagstaff, and even forced a SkyWest air shuttle to abort a landing, when Raggio steered his Cessna onto the runway without permission from flight controllers.
Raggio had owned his 1963 twin-engine Cessna for a little over a year but was not qualified to pilot it, according to the NTSB.
Radar data indicates that after leaving Flagstaff, the plane continued to follow Interstate 40 until a point east of Grants, N.M., when it veered sharply to the north, and flew up the Animas River Valley and to the west of Silverton.
The report hinted also why the plane may have gone so far off course from its route to Amarillo.
At the Flagstaff airport, Raggio had asked for a briefing for the weather at “L51,” the airport identifier for the remote Heller Farm Airport at Winifred, Mont.
The NTSB report also included a flight chart showing the Tradewind Airport near Amarillo. While that airport’s identifier is “TDW,” the chart indicates an “L 51” as the maximum runway length (5,100 feet), leading to speculation that the pilot may have mistakenly entered “L51” as an airport indicator into the plane’s GPS device, thus resulting in his veering dramatically off course — toward Montana.
And the pilot’s sister told investigators that to her knowledge Raggio knew no one in Montana.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that among those killed in the crash was Raggio’s son-in-law, Steven Wilkinson, 59, of Newberry Springs, Calif., who was arrested four days earlier by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department on charges of methamphetamine sale and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He had posted bail on those charges just three days before the plane crash.
An operator at the Barstow, Calif., airport told the Standard shortly after the 2015 crash that there were many “rumors at the local bars” that Wilkinson was either on the run or going somewhere to get money.
Also killed in the crash were passengers Rosalinda Leslie, 57, of Hesperia, Calif., and Michael Lyle Riley, 59, of Barstow.
The NTSB report indicates the twin-engine Cessna 310H “impacted mountainous terrain at an elevation of about 11,500 feet.”
Weather was partly cloudy in Silverton that day, but there were some rain squalls and a thunderstorm was reported in the area.
The wreckage was located the following day near the head of Cascade Creek at Grizzly Peak, about nine miles west of Silverton.
Sheriff Bruce Conrad described a path of destruction, with the plane pulverized by the impact.
The NTSB report indicates the pilot was suffering from several chronic health conditions, and in a visit to a Veterans Administration facility on Sept. 1, 2015, Raggio was described as “in a wheelchair but able to transfer,” and he was taking injected insulin and other prescription drugs.
The NTSB pointed out that passenger Michael Riley was also “pilot-rated.” And tests on his remains indicated presence of methamphetamine.