Aircraft Wrecks in the Mountains and Deserts of the American West
The true story of what happened to this T-28A training aircraft and its crew will never be known. However, based on the radio transcripts and the catastrophic end to this flight, the following is most likely what was happening in the cockpit just minutes before the aircraft slammed at high speed nose first into the rolling hills just two hundred yards north of what is now State Highway 580 in Dublin, California.
Captain Charles O. Wiedman, age 30, from Lincoln, Nebraska had flown on instruments many times before this flight, but something was different this time. Outside of his canopy the clouds were passing by with ever increasing speed. The heavy gray mist made it difficult for Weidman to even see the tips of his own wings. Trickles of rain were running the full length of the T-28’s canopy. The instruments seemed to be malfunctioning, and the airplane seemed to be fighting back. He had trimmed the airplane for level flight, but the pressure on the control stick felt wrong. He didn’t understand what was happening. Surely the turn and bank indicator was malfunctioning. Why couldn’t he keep the instruments centered? If only he could see the horizon, all would be well. Then, Weidman took his eyes off of the instruments, and looked outside. It would be the biggest and last mistake he would ever make in this life.
Wiedman had departed McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, California at two minutes after three in the afternoon. Within minutes he was engulfed in the gray mist of the overcast sky. Now the T-28 was flying in instrument conditions, and Wiedman would have to rely solely on his instrument training to keep the wings level. Twenty minutes later, Weidman reported to Air Traffic Control as required, stating that he was then over the Bay Point Fan Marker, and ready to start the approach to Oakland. The planned destination was the Oakland Municipal Airport, a mere 90 miles from his point of departure at McClellan field.
With Weidman in the T-28, was Warrant Officer James F. Shoup from Lanark, Illinois. Shoup was in the Maintenance Division, and was therefore not a rated pilot. He had flown as a passenger many times before this flight, and would have instinctively known that something was wrong. He was being tossed around violently in the second seat, but was helpless to do anything about it.
Over the radio Weidman heard the Air Traffic Controller advise him that he was going to have to “Hold” at the Newark radio range in solid instrument conditions for an agonizing four minutes. That meant that he would have to guide his T-28 around an imaginary race track pattern in the sky while relying solely on his instruments. Such a maneuver is sometimes required to achieve proper spacing between arriving aircraft. At that point, Weidman would have just wanted to get his T-28 back on the ground.
At some point during the Hold maneuver Weidman lost control of his aircraft. It was now hurdling toward earth at an ever increasing speed. It is likely the crew saw the ground rushing up at them just seconds before impact. There was simply too little altitude left to recover. The end came quickly! The aircraft buried itself more than six feet down in the soft soil of a cow pasture just short of a small grove of trees.
Weidman had likely become disoriented and unable to correctly control his aircraft. The phenomenon is called Spatial Disorientation (SD). It is a dreaded condition feared by all pilots regardless of their aeronautical rating or experience in the air. It is the inability of the pilot to correctly interpret aircraft attitude, altitude or airspeed, in relation to the Earth. The aircraft’s pilot’s perception of direction does not agree with reality. His senses may tell him that the aircraft is in a right turn, when in fact it is in a left turn and descending. As the pilot tries to correct the false indication by relying solely on his senses, he will worsen the condition and soon lose total control of the aircraft. It is not the weather that makes the aircraft to go out of control; it is the actions of the pilot himself as he tries to correct an imaginary flight condition. It is more typically a temporary condition resulting from flight into poor weather conditions with low or no visibility.
Once a pilot loses that reference, he must immediately transition from controlling his aircraft visually by outside the cockpit references, to his instrument panel and the many flight instruments available to him. If he cannot make that transition quickly and efficiently, the outcome of the flight will likely be fatal for all on board.
Spatial Disorientation occurs most often when a pilot, untrained on instrument flight, inadvertently enters Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). In other words, the pilot has continued the flight into bad weather or cloudy conditions. Sometimes it is by accident, mostly due to poor flight planning. At other times it is because of the pilot’s total disregard of the rules and regulations concerning such flight. Visual Flight Rules (VFR), and Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) are quite specific in what a pilot can and cannot do while operating as pilot in command of an aircraft. A pilot’s overconfidence in his ability to handle his airplane, and disregard for the rules, will likely get him and all those onboard killed.
A pilot can also become disoriented in clear weather while flying low or below the peaks in very mountainous terrain. In such instants there may not be a horizon to use as a reference for level flight. The same holds true for moonless night flight, particularly over a large body of water.
On July 16, 1999, John Kennedy Jr., the only son of assassinated U. S. President John F. Kennedy was killed on just such a night flight. While flying his Piper Saratoga at night to a family gathering on Martha’s Vineyard, Kennedy lost control of his aircraft which flew into the ocean while descending at more than 4,700 feet per minute. Weeks before the accident Kennedy had begun training for his Instrument Rating.
There were no clouds in the sky that night. In fact it was classified as VFR all along his route. However, the National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
“The pilot's failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation. Factors in the accident were haze, and the dark night.”
A pilot who is properly trained and certified in Instrument Flight should have no problems conducting a flight safely is poor weather. IFR flight, if done properly, is actually safer than VFR flight. However, even a properly trained pilot may still experience Spatial Disorientation in the few seconds before or just after he transitions to his flight instruments. The trick is to recognize the condition soon enough to take action. The pilot must then disregard his senses, and above all, believe his instruments.
Captain Weidman was properly trained. He had received all of the required training and was fully qualified for such flight. So what happened this time? We will never know!
Today there is still a slight indentation in the ground at the point of impact. Small pieces of the T-28 are still scattered all around the area and in the stand of trees just twenty yards to the south. The larger pieces were removed long ago, and the huge crater was filled in. The engine, a Wright R-1300-7radial, will forever remain buried where it came to rest six feet down in a cow pasture along State Highway 580 in Dublin, California.