Low visibility could be key part of plane crash investigation in Medford

MEDFORD, Ore. — While we’re still waiting on a preliminary report into Sunday’s fatal crash, we’re hearing that the weather may have played a factor in the incident.

Pilots are required to use a standard instrument departure when flying in low visibility conditions – the National Weather Service says this was the case for pilots on Sunday night.

It will take months before official results from the plane crash investigation will be released.

The NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] says it looks at three broad areas in its investigation: the pilot, the airplane, and the operating environment.

“We’re going to be looking deeply into, the course of an investigation that can range from 12 – 24 months, and then as we find that any one of those issues did not play a role, we’ll rule it out,” said NTSB spokesperson, Peter Knudson.

A photo of the plane’s SID [standard instrument departure]
Veteran commercial pilot and flight instructor from Texas, Robert Katz, has watched situations like this closely for years.

He’s not involved in the investigation into Sunday’s crash but says a lack of visibility is often a contributor to crashes.

“When you’re flying in the clouds, and as we hear in the audio, it’s reported the ceiling [cloud layer] is right at 200 feet – that means when an airplane is flying in the clouds, the pilot is effectively blind looking at anything outside the window. There’s nothing to see, except white or gray, like you’re in a cotton ball. You must rely on your instrumentation to keep yourself oriented,” said Katz.

He says in that way, this crash could be similar to the 2016 fatal plane crash involving Grants Pass man John Belnap.

The amateur pilot, his son, and his son’s friend died on a moonless July 4th night, after taking off in Brookings.

The NTSB’s final report indicated the plane likely crashed into the ocean after Belnap became disoriented in the dark.

On Sunday, the National Weather Service in Medford says visibility was at 200 feet.

“The cloud ceiling was 200 feet which is very low and that’s considered a low instrument flight rule, meaning you can only fly with instruments – not visually,” said a meteorologist with NWS Medford, Ryan Sandler.

That’s the reason, Katz says, why he reached out to local media – hoping to educate other pilots, to prevent further loss of life.

“These things happen nearly every day of the week somewhere in this country,” Katz said.

For now, we don’t know what killed the two people on board the plane Sunday… only time will tell.

The NTSB says it can take up to anywhere from 12 to 24 months to conclude its official investigation.

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Mariah Mills
NBC5 News reporter Mariah Mills is a Medford native. She graduated from the University of Oregon with a Bachelor's Degree in journalism. She also minored in sociology. In school, she covered Oregon athletics for the student-run television station, Duck TV. When she's not reporting, she’s reading, hiking and rooting for her favorite teams, the Seattle Seahawks and the Oregon Ducks.