Crash report: Bad weather, darkness doomed pilot

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Two years ago this week, Norman Baker, of Windsor, Massachusetts, a world-renowned adventurer, climbed into the seat of a small plane at Pittsfield's airport. His flight plan was simple: a hop north into Vermont, alone, to celebrate Thanksgiving with family.

Instead of reaching the Middlebury airport, Baker's Cessna 172G went down Nov. 22, 2017, at dusk in woods north of Pittsford. The experienced pilot, his vision obscured, found himself penned in by hills.

More than a year of study by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Baker, 89, crashed and died after becoming disoriented under worsening weather. Moments before, after likely using Route 7 below as a navigational guide, Baker flew north, into a narrower valley hemmed in by ridges to both sides — and by low clouds above.

He turned east to avoid a hill in his path, then swung sharply west. Flying barely 425 feet above ground level, Baker managed to clear a hidden lake and ridge. But, he failed to find a safe route back toward Route 7 just a few hundred feet away, according to the NTSB report.

"He was likely not prepared for the sudden entry into instrument conditions," the report said. Though issued in February, the report's findings had not yet been made public.

The federal agency could find no mechanical failure to explain why Baker, who had been flying solo since he was 17, struck a tree. His airplane fell into pieces into the woods below.

In interviews with The Eagle after the crash, several of Baker's children said their father's love of aviation started when he won flying lessons at age 13.

"His airplane was the one place he felt young and not impaired at all," said a son, Mitchell Baker, referring to injuries his father suffered in a fall from a horse in 2015 and, later, the consequences of hip surgery.

Baker's sense of adventure took him around the world. He served as navigator for three of the famous Kon-Tiki reed boat expeditions that Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl led from South America toward Polynesian islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. Baker later served as a fellow and director of the Explorers Club in New York City.

Heyerdahl had set out to prove that long before Christopher Columbus, people native to South America could have migrated to Polynesia using similar rafts.

Though Baker pursued a career as an engineer, his spirit propelled him and his family, including his longtime wife, Mary Ann, through adventures around the world. In the 1980s, the family relocated to the British Virgin Islands, members told The Eagle, and rebuilt an 1868 Norwegian schooner.

They lived for years on that tall ship, the Anne Kristine, eventually sailing it to New York City. It was destroyed in the storm that hit the East Coast in 1991. The plane Baker was flying two years ago was registered to an entity he called Anne Kristine II Inc.

"My dad would rather fly than drive," another son, Daniel Baker, of Starksboro, Vt., said after the crash.

An autopsy performed by the chief medical examiner in Burlington, Vt., found that Baker died of blunt trauma. Toxicology tests found no evidence that the pilot was physiologically impaired.

Also, the NTSB probe, led by John M. Brannen II, found no evidence of mechanical failure, either in the small plane's engine or with its basic instruments, such as its gyroscopic "turn and bank indicator."

Instead, the probable cause of the crash was put down, in the cold language of such studies, as "VFR encounter with IMC."

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That means a pilot navigating by his own vision — under "visual flight rules" — was unable to continue to do so after flying into "instrument meteorological conditions."

"The loss of visibility combined with the turns and varying altitudes while attempting to exit the valley resulted in spatial disorientation and a subsequent loss of airplane control," according to the report.

Jeff Miller, who owns land near the crash site, told Brannen that it had been raining at the time, calling it "not a pretty night." Weather reports from area airports warned of instrument conditions and noted broken cloud cover at 2,000 feet, as well as rain and mist.

Daniel Baker told Brannen that his father had flown in bad weather before and was in excellent health for a man of his age. He said his dad recently had flown the 1966 plane to Canada and back and successfully completed other long-distance flights. Daniel Baker could not be reached for comment.

"It is likely that the pilot inadvertently encountered instrument meteorological conditions while maneuvering the airplane in deteriorating light conditions," the report said.

Baker had taken off from the Pittsfield Municipal Airport at 3:55 p.m. The plane crashed at 4:56 p.m., one minute before the end of "civil twilight." That is the scientific term for the period when the sun has gone down below the horizon but its rays still illuminate the low sky in clear weather.

Though Baker was trained to fly by instruments, he had told a weather briefer the day before the flight that he preferred to stay out of the clouds on this trip. He said he wanted to avoid the potential for icing that could result, given the time of year.

But, Baker nonetheless found himself dodging low clouds, as well as terrain. The day before, the briefer noted that conditions for visual flight would be marginal in the area through which Baker planned to fly and had cautioned against attempting to do so.

Baker held a commercial pilot's license to fly single- and multi-engine planes. His medical certificate has been previously issued July 14, 2015; the certificate lapsed July 31, 2017, and had not been renewed, according to the NTSB.

At the time of his last medical exam, Baker reported having 1,520 hours of flight experience, including 55 hours in 2015.

The NTSB used a hand-held GPS device recovered from the plane to reconstruct the full route of Baker's hourlong flight. An accompanying graphic created by the agency tracks the plane all the way to the crash site, showing not only its path, but elevation.

When roughly 2 miles south of Pittsford, about 8 miles beyond Rutland, Vt., Baker's plane was flying 1,500 feet above ground level. Minutes later, having entered the narrow valley east of the Route 7 corridor, above Sugar Hollow Brook, the Cessna was half that height above the ground.

Pilots navigating without the aid of instruments are challenged when traveling over rural areas with scant lighting on the ground to provide reference points, the agency notes in its report.

The last GPS reading recovered by the NTSB showed Baker's plane 750 feet from the crash site. The plane broke up on impact, the agency said.

According to the NTSB, about two-thirds of airplane accidents that occur in cases of reduced visibility result in deaths.

"We often see pilots who decide to turn back after they have already encountered weather," the report states, "at which point it is too late."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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