Ella Myers’ parents, Jennifer Douglass, right, and Brian Myers mounted an exhibit of Ella’s photographs and writings at Western New Mexico University that will travel the state this year.
From left, Michael Mahl, Ella Kirk and Ella Myers, students at Aldo Leopold Charter School in Silver City. They died in an airplane crash in May 2014.
In addition to her literary pursuits, Ella Kirk, 14, was actively fighting the state's plans to divert water from the Gila River.
John and Jennifer Mahl and their son Alex Mahl are the parents and brother of Michael Mahl, one of the teens who perished along with two other students in a plane crash after flying to look at damage from a forest fire.
I looked at the crash, and I could see it was on fire, and I knew everyone was dead … I – I said, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’
I see it every night in every dream, so I don’t know what is my dream, and I don’t know what is reality, because it’s different. Sometimes it’s a fireball, sometimes it’s not.
– Steve Blake, former teacher at Aldo Leopold Charter School in Silver City, in an August 2015 deposition
Two years ago in May, a small plane flying three teenagers over the Gila National Forest for a school-related project crashed and burned a mile from the airport where it should have landed, killing everyone on board.
Ella Kirk, 14: writer of poetry, prose and song. Michael Mahl, 16: musician, devoted Christian, irreverent funnyman and student body president. Ella Myers, 16: photographer, equestrian, budding novelist and aspiring filmmaker. All three were avid conservationists.
And Peter Hochla, 67: a retired Albuquerque psychiatrist and pilot who flew around the state providing mental health care to veterans and inmates in rural areas.
After the tragedy, a lawsuit by the teens’ parents alleged that Hochla lacked experience flying his high-performance aircraft, did not possess a commercial pilot license and did not regularly fly students, and that the Aldo Leopold Charter School didn’t adequately vet him. A family member of Hochla disputed the allegations about his experience and said in a written statement that he “had 4,000 flight hours – more than that of most commercial pilots – and flew nearly daily.”
Last month, the school settled the claims for a total of $750,000 – the maximum payout allowed in lawsuits involving a school under state law. The terms of the settlement with the Hochla estate were not disclosed.
The tragedy – and the response – deeply divided a small town where both the kids and the school were beloved.
Accident reviews by the National Transportation Safety Board and an outside flight expert attributed the crash to a combination of pilot error in handling a “slippery” aircraft that could require delicate maneuvering and the exacerbating factor of weather, particularly wind gusts.
Steve Blake, the teacher who arranged the flight and who, according to depositions in the lawsuit, failed to inform the school administration or review the pilot’s experience, was not formally disciplined until the settlement forced a letter of reprimand. Blake, a co-founder of Aldo Leopold in 2005, resigned from the school last year.
In an email, Blake said he would “not speak publicly about the accident” but said, “Ella, Michael and Ella will always personify the heart, voice and soul of Aldo. They were the most amazing team that I have experienced in 25 years of teaching.”
The settlement required the Aldo Leopold Governing Council and Principal Eric Ahner to acknowledge the administration’s responsibility in the accident and issue a formal apology. The school was also made to hire an outside risk assessor to evaluate decision-making processes and practices in “experiential” education.
An “experiential” education favors field work, and parents say that is part of what sets Aldo Leopold apart. Backpacking trips into the Gila wilderness, internships and service projects are all part of the Aldo Leopold program.
On May 23, 2014, Kirk, Mahl and Myers were eager to do research for an ecomonitoring project as part of their participation in the school-mandated Youth Conservation Corps. A forest fire had burned Signal Peak in the Gila just a few weeks before. Blake arranged a flyover of the burn area for the kids to survey the damage.
‘Not a routine flight’
And so I said to Ella, ‘If the weather’s bad, you’re not going to fly, but I want you to call me before you get on the plane. I want you to call me and let me know if you’re flying.’ And then she – she was walking out the door, and she … kind of had a little huffy thing. And I said, ‘Come back here. You don’t want to leave like that. This could be the last time you ever see me.’
And she got on my lap, and she gave me a great big hug, and she said, ‘Everything’s going to be okay,’ and then she went pedaling off.
– Patrice Mutchnick, mother of Ella Kirk, in a November 2015 deposition
On Fridays, Hochla often flew to Silver City to see patients. Blake’s wife, Denise, who was a nurse and a colleague of Hochla’s, would pick him up at the airport. Sometimes, when the weather was bad, he would stay the night at the Blake residence.
Hochla was an experienced airman, having served in the New Mexico Air National Guard at Kirtland Air Force Base for 21 years, according to his obituary in this newspaper.
That Friday in May, when the students were looking for a way to survey the damage of the Signal fire, the idea was proposed that Hochla take the kids on a quick flyover of the zone, departing and landing at Whiskey Creek Airport off Highway 180 near town.
The parents signed permission slips with the understanding that, if the weather turned, the flight would be canceled, according to interviews. Storm clouds were skirting the area, and gusty winds picked up in the afternoon. Patrice Mutchnick, mother of Ella Kirk, said in a deposition that she assumed the trip would be called off.
But Hochla’s Beechcraft Model G36 Bonanza departed from Whiskey Creek between 3 and 3:30 p.m. with Kirk, Mahl and Myers on board.
Don Lewis, a commercial airline pilot tasked with reviewing the accident on behalf of the parents, noted in his report that the flight “was not a routine flight” for Hochla, who may have “felt pressure to conclude the mission as promised to the concerned parents and teachers waiting back on the ground.”
Shortly before 4 p.m., according to reports by Lewis and the NTSB, the plane approached the runway too fast. Winds gusting to around 25 knots exceeded the plane’s maximum crosswind limit of 17 knots.
The plane touched down briefly, skipped, then touched down again before Hochla – with too little runway left to stop the aircraft – attempted to take off again, applying full engine power.
But, according to the expert’s report, the airspeed was now too slow to accelerate back to a safe flying speed.
“The pilot made a last-second decision to force the airplane into the air to avoid running off of the end of the runway,” Lewis said in his report. “The aircraft struggled to stay airborne in spite of the low speed and high power.”
One wing stalled. The plane began to roll.
Some (people) have a light that radiates from their eyes. A light only death can diminish.
These are the hardest to let go … You hold them there and try not to move, try to scarcely breathe because you know with only one faint puff their flesh and blood and skin will crumble and dissolve into nothing but dust in the sunlight.
You hold this individual for as long as you can, you hold your breath till you can hold it no longer.
– Ella Myers, in an excerpt from her writings
The parents are trying to honor their children in personal ways.
Brian Myers and Jennifer Douglass, parents of Ella Myers, mounted an exhibit of her photographs and writings that opened at Western New Mexico University in January and will travel the state this year. Myers and Douglass may also set up a foundation that would fund projects that combine art, science and the environment – “because that was the direction Ella was going in her work,” Douglass said.
Myers had written two novels that won national awards, and she had earned a merit scholarship to study filmmaking at a summer program of the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her mother, who runs a horse farm, said she was also an accomplished dressage rider.
“After she died, we found in all of her notebooks the poems and writing that she did,” Douglass said. “She was very private. We respected that. When she did die, finding these things was really something.”
The Mahl family is working to set up a scholarship in Michael Mahl’s name at WNMU.
“He was very outgoing, very sure of himself, definitely a people person,” said Jennifer Mahl, his mother. “He brought joy everywhere he went.”
Mahl played guitar, drums, ukulele, mandolin and an aboriginal wind instrument called the didgeridoo – which he built himself.
“The world lost three extraordinary individuals that day, way too soon,” John Mahl said. “They were making a difference in society.”
Ella Kirk – in addition to her literary and musical pursuits – was actively fighting the state’s plans to divert water from the Gila River. She delivered a 2,500-signature petition to the Interstate Stream Commission and a 6,400-signature petition to Gov. Susana Martinez to keep the Gila running free.
Mutchnick said she is creating a conservation fund in her daughter’s name to pay out small grants for students working on habitat restoration projects or water issues in the Southwest. “Ella used to say, ‘The time is now,'” Mutchnick said. “That’s how I feel about it. I want people to do the work now and do it in memory of her.”
The settlement attempted to end an argument over whether the flight counted as a “school trip.” The administration said that in part because the flight took place three days after the last day of school, it was not sponsored by the school.
In their lawsuit, the parents claimed that regardless of whether class was in session, their kids were doing ecomonitoring that furthered the goals of their Youth Conservation Corps project.
Ahner, the school principal, said in a statement to the Journal that the trip was “school-related because the three students were furthering their studies of how fires affect forest ecology.”
Also, “a faculty member had organized it at the school, and the students met at the school before the flight.”
However, he qualified that statement by adding it was not a “school-sponsored” trip that would have triggered the school’s usual safety protocol.
Ahner said, “Each day we try very hard to do things in our school that honor the lives of the students we lost.”
Mutchnick said, “We did get the apology and for them to initiate some assessments of their program, but we had to go to court to do it.”
John Mahl said his youngest son still attends Aldo Leopold.
“They are taking things seriously,” he said. “I don’t think that would have occurred if it weren’t for the settlement.”
Original article can be found here: http://www.abqjournal.com
From left to right: Ella Kirk, Michael Mahl and Ella Myers.
NTSB Identification: CEN14FA249
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Friday, May 23, 2014 in Silver City, NM
Probable Cause Approval Date: 09/17/2015
Aircraft: RAYTHEON AIRCRAFT COMPANY G36, registration: N536G
Injuries: 4 Fatal.
NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.
The airplane was returning from a local flight and the pilot flew a tight downwind leg for landing on runway 35, possibly due to a direct crosswind in excess of 20 knots. During the base turn, the airplane overshot the final course, and the pilot used at least 60 degrees of bank to correct the airplane back on course and over the runway. The airplane then bounced and touched down at least 20 knots above the manufacturer’s published approach speed with about 1,810 ft remaining on the runway. The airplane’s airspeed began to rapidly decrease, but then several seconds later, the airplane’s airspeed increased as the pilot rejected the landing. The airplane did not gain significant altitude or airspeed then began a slight right turn. The airplane’s roll rate then sharply increased, and the airplane quickly descended, consistent with a stall, before colliding with a transmission wire and terrain. Examination of the airframe and engine did not reveal any preimpact anomalies that would have precluded normal operation. Strong, variable, gusty wind, with an environment conductive to the formation of dry microbursts, was present at the airport at the time of the accident. Several lightning strikes were recorded in the vicinity of the accident site around the time of the accident. It is unknown if the presence of lightning or wind impacted the pilot’s inflight decision-making in the pattern, on approach, or during the attempted go-around. The circumstances of the accident are consistent with an in-flight encounter with a strong tailwind and/or windshear during climbout after the rejected landing.
An autopsy conducted on the pilot identified significant stenosis of a distal coronary artery without any other evidence of cardiac distress; however, if there was an associated medical event, the condition would likely result in sudden incapacitation, which is not consistent with the airplane’s coordinated flight profile.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
The airplane’s encounter with a strong tailwind and/or windshear, which resulted in an inadvertent stall. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s continuation of the unstable approach, long landing, and delayed decision to conduct a go-around.
HISTORY OF FLIGHT
On May 23, 2014, at 1553 mountain daylight time, a Raytheon G36 airplane, N536G, impacted terrain near Silver City, New Mexico. The private pilot and three passengers were fatally injured. The airplane was destroyed. The airplane was registered to Rural Health Outreach Inc. and operated by the pilot under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 as a personal flight. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the flight that operated without a flight plan. The local flight originated from the Whiskey Creek Airport (94E), Silver City, New Mexico, at 1536.
Several witnesses at 94E saw the airplane just prior to the accident. One witness at 94E saw the airplane in the pattern for runway 35. He noted that the airplane's position on downwind was "tight" in relation to the airport. The airplane began a "very tight base leg that was at least a 60 degree bank." The witness described the winds as gusty, around 25-30 knots, as would be associated with the passage of a thunderstorm. The airplane tightened the base to final turn and overshot the final approach leg. The witness estimated that the airplane's first touchdown occurred near mid-field, where it bounced and then settled to the runway. Shortly thereafter, the engine sounded as if the pilot had applied full engine power. The airplane was seen travelling down the runway and then took off. The airplane's landing gear and flaps appeared to both be down. The airplane began gaining altitude and started a slight right turn. The witness said that the airplane stalled and descended out of sight.
Another witness observed the airplane in a "tight left downwind approach for runway 35 at about 600-800" feet above ground level. The airplane's groundspeed increased in the base turn and the airplane flew through the runway's extended centerline. The airplane used at least 60 degrees of bank to correct back towards the runway's centerline. The airplane landed and then attempted to go around. The airplane went off the end of the runway at a high angle of attack, descended slightly into the valley, and then began to gain altitude. The airplane started a 15° bank turn to the east, began to descend, and the airplane's angle of attack got "steeper" as the airplane descended out of sight.
A witness near the accident site saw the airplane "gradually roll to the right, and then "sharply pitch" to the right where it impacted the ground."
The airplane impacted desert terrain near several trailer homes. A post impact fire ensued and consumed a majority of the airplane.
The pilot, age 67, held a private pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single engine land and instrument airplane. The pilot flew his airplane frequently to treat patients at remote medical clinics. A review of the pilot's log book found that the last completed page ended on March 14, 2014. As of that date, the pilot logged a total of 3,547.7 hours. The preceding log book entries indicated that the pilot flew on average 15 hours per month, so the pilot's total flight time was about 3,600 hours prior to the accident. The pilot's flight review, which included an instrument proficiency check, was completed on December 16, 2012, in the accident airplane. On January 29, 2014, the pilot was issued a second class medical certificate with the restrictions that the pilot must wear corrective lenses for near and distant vision. The medical examination also noted mild cataracts and his retina showed no holes, tears, or retinal detachment.
The single engine, low wing, six-seat, retractable gear airplane, serial number E-3707, was manufactured in 2006. It was powered by a single 300-horsepower Continental Motors IO-550-B engine, serial number 675766, that drove a metal Hartzell three bladed, variable pitch propeller. The airplane's last inspection was an annual type accomplished on June 6, 2013, at an airframe total time of 1,105.8 hours. On October 3, 2013, the engine was overhauled and modified by a supplemental type certificate. The overhauled engine was installed in the airplane on November 1, 2013 at a total airframe time of 1,156.1 hours. The most recent hour meter recorded in the logbooks was for maintenance performed on April 8, 2014, at a total airframe time of 1,229.4 hours.
At 1555, an automated weather reporting station located at the Grant Country Airport (KSVC), located about 8.75 nautical miles southeast of the accident site reported wind from 270 degrees at 21 knots gusting to 28 knots, visibility 10 miles, ceiling broken at 10,000 feet, temperature 70 degrees Fahrenheit (F), dew point 34 degrees F, and a barometric pressure of 30.04 inches of mercury.
A weather study was conducted for the accident area. Atmosphere data retrieved from a weather balloon launch at 1800 from Santa Teresa, New Mexico, identified an environment conducive to "dry microbursts." This area had a potential for severe weather gusts of 68 knots and microburst gust potential of 50 knots. Weather radar data identified patterns consistent with developing and decaying convective activity in the vicinity of the accident site near the time of the accident. Some storm cell decay occurred south of the accident location with 10-15 minutes prior to the accident. In addition, from 1539-1555, several lightning strikes were detected within 10 miles of the accident site.
The Whiskey Creek Airport (94E) is a public airport located at measured altitude of 6,126 feet mean sea level. It has one runway 17/35, 5,400 feet by 50 feet, of asphalt construction in good condition.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
The airplane impacted desert terrain near several trailer homes, about 0.8 miles northeast of runway 35's departure end. The airplane's first impact point was a transmission wire located west of the accident site about 25 feet above the ground. Forty feet east of the transmission wire was a ground crater which contained the airplane's propeller. The debris path was roughly cone shaped, was aligned on a 77° magnetic heading, and was about 140 feet long and 70 feet at its widest area. A postimpact fire ensued which consumed a majority of the airplane. The main wreckage contained remnants of the cabin, fuselage, wings, and empennage. The wreckage came to rest facing a 228° heading.
Both ailerons were partially consumed by the postimpact fire and remnants remained attached to their respective wing. The left aileron trim actuator extension was measured and found to be about 1.75 inches, which corresponded to about 7° trim tab trailing edge down. Aileron control continuity was established from the flight controls to each wing bell crank. Aileron trim control cable continuity was confirmed from the cockpit to the aileron trim actuator. The flaps actuator indicated the flaps were up. The left and right elevator flight control surfaces were partially consumed by the postimpact fire. Remnants of the elevators remained attached to their respective horizontal stabilizer. The left and right elevator trim actuator extensions were measured and found to be 1.625 inches, which corresponded between 10-15° trim tab trailing edge down, airplane nose up. Elevator control continuity was confirmed from the cockpit to the elevator surfaces. The elevator trim control cables were confirmed from the cockpit to the trim actuators. The rudder was partially consumed by the postimpact fire and remnants remained attached to the vertical stabilizer. Rudder control continuity was established from the cockpit to the rudder bell crank. The gear handle was found in the down position. The fuel selector was found selecting the right main tank. No preimpact anomalies were detected with the airframe.
The engine was impacted damaged and found separated from the airframe. Both magnetos were actuated by hand and found to produce a spark at each terminal. The fuel manifold valve screen was clear of debris and all fuel nozzles were found clear of blockages. The throttle body and fuel metering unit's fuel screen contained a small amount of fibrous material but was largely unobstructed. The crankshaft was able to be turned by hand with continuity established throughout the engine. Cylinder thumb compression and suction was confirmed to each cylinder. A borescope inspection of each cylinder found normal operation and combustion signatures. No preimpact anomalies were detected with the engine.
The propeller blades were labelled "A", "B", and "C" for documentation purposes only. All three blades displayed signatures of chordwise scratches, leading edge nicks and gouges, and blade polishing. Blade B was curled near the tip and the tip of the blade was found separated. Blade C displayed S-bending along its entire length.
A Garmin Oregon 450t hand held GPS was found in the debris field and was sent to the NTSB laboratories for a data download.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
An autopsy was authorized and conducted on the pilot by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator. The cause of death was the result of multiple blunt trauma and the manner of death was ruled an accident. The autopsy identified 80% stenosis of the distal third left anterior descending coronary artery. All other arteries were free of stenosis.
Forensic toxicology was performed on specimens from the pilot by the FAA Bioaeronautical Sciences Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Testing detected the presence of oxymetazonline which is a decongestant used in the treatment of nasal congestion.
TESTS AND RESEARCH
Pilot Operating Handbook
Beechcraft's Model G36 Bonanza Pilot's Operating Handbook (POH), revised July 2014, listed the maximum demonstrated crosswind limit as 17 knots.
The Normal Procedures section lists the balked landing checklist:
1. Throttle and Propeller … Full Forward
2. Airspeed …80 KTS (until clear of obstacles, then trim to 110 KTS)
3. Flaps … UP
4. Landing Gear … RETRACT
5. Cowl Flaps … OPEN
Published landing performance data for the airplane is predicated on a threshold speed between 78-81 knots depending on the airplane's weight. Published performance data does not exist for landings in excess of the published approach speeds or in excess of 10 knots of tailwind. Using a gross weight of 3,400 pounds, a direct crosswind of 20 knots, 70° F, and an approach speed of 80 knots, engineers from Textron Aviation estimated the required landing distance at 1,720 feet.
The POH provided a chart of stall speeds with idle power. The chart was run for the airplane's final configuration of flaps up and airplane gross weights between 2,800-3,600 pounds. The stall speed at 30° of bank would be between 66-72 knots.
Garmin Oregon 450t
The Garmin Oregon 450t is a battery operated hand-portable GPS receiver with a 12 channel wide area augmentation system (WAAS). The unit contains an electronic compass and a barometric pressure sensor for recording pressure-based altitude information. Published GPS position location accuracy is less than 33 feet horizontal under normal conditions, and 10-16 feet with differential global positioning system (DGPS) active. Although the device was thermally damaged, the airplane's last flight track was extracted. For the accident flight, the device was powered on at 1401 and recorded the airplane's takeoff time of 1536 as the flight departed on runway 17. The airplane turned to the north and flew about 13 miles north in an area between Black Peak and New Mexico Highway 15. The airplane then returned back to 94E and entered a left base turn for runway 35. Starting at 1551, the GPS update rate began to vary and there were two episodes of where the GPS receiver momentarily lost satellite lock and continued to record position information based on projected data. About 1552:15, as the airplane turned left towards the runway, the receiver lost satellite lock and the airplane's position returned at 1552:42 as the airplane was over the runway. At that time, the airplane was about 770 feet down the runway and 175 feet above ground level. At 1552:53, the airplane touched down with a groundspeed of 120 knots, skipped, and touched down 3 seconds later at 100 knots groundspeed with about 1,810 feet remaining on the runway. The airplane slowed to 87 knots and with 1,060 feet remaining on the runway the airplane's groundspeed began to increase. The airplane lifted off from the runway, flew to the north, and began a slight climb. At 1553:12, the airplane began to turn right at a rate of about 3-4° per second. About 1553:26, the receiver again lost satellite lock and regained the airplane's position about 30 seconds later at the accident site. The final portion of the accident sequence was not captured by the device.
An Apple iPhone was located in the airplane's wreckage and shipped to the NTSB laboratories for download. Data extracted from the iPhone showed that none of the video files were date/time stamped on the day of the accident. Thirty eight of the image files were date/time stamped on the day of the accident. Most of these files depicted persons and aircraft on the ground. Ten of these files corresponded with previews or full resolution images of the view off the right wing from inside an aircraft in-flight. The file containing the most recent image was taken at 15:46:35 MDT. There was no data which could aid in reconstructing in accident sequence.
Secure Digital (SD) Card
An SD card was found in a thermally damaged camera in the airplane's wreckage. The SD card was extracted from the camera and shipped to the NTSB laboratories for download. Data extracted from the SD card found that two of the video files were date/time stamped on the day of the accident. Twenty of the image files were date/time stamped on the day of the accident. All of the image files corresponded with external views of an airplane on the ground or in-flight views looking forward or off the right wing. The most recent image was time stamped 1546 MDT. The two video files depicted in-flight views looking forward or off the right wing from an airplane in level flight. There was no data which could aid in reconstructing in accident sequence.