WASHINGTON -- Federal investigators have now traced the final minutes of pilot Raymond S. Wieveg's life, right up until the time his Piper aircraft slammed into an Alpine County, Calif. hillside.
Now, one year after Wieveg's fatal Oct. 16, 2008 accident, the National Transportation Safety Board has concluded Wieveg might still have saved himself even after his airplane's engine began sputtering.
"Contributing to the accident was the pilot's failure to choose a suitable landing area," federal investigators stated in their final report issued this week.
By itself, the death near Markleeville of the 53-year-old Carson City, Nev., businessman made little public splash. Wieveg was one of 495 people killed in general aviation accidents last year; another 564 died in civil aviation accidents.
But with the completion of the so-called "probable cause" report, more light is shed on the investigative gears that begin grinding anytime accidents occur. Fatal accidents, in particular, take time to sort out.
Currently, for instance, National Transportation Safety Board investigators are still probing a May 22, 2009 airplane crash near Fallon, Nev., in which three Clovis girls died. The girls' father, Navy Cmdr. Luther H. Hook III, was piloting the twin-engine Cessna and also died.
The safety board typically takes between 12 and 18 months to complete the investigation of a fatal aviation accident, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Similarly, the investigation of a Feb. 8, 2006 crash that killed Dave Besenheimer and Chuck Billington near Oakdale ended in March 2007. The pilots' families are now suing four companies involved with the amateur-built Zodiac aircraft.
Safety board investigators attributed the Oakdale crash to "structural failure of the wings for unknown reasons."
By contrast, records show investigators needed less than three months to conclude a minor April 24 private airplane crash near Hanford resulted from the pilot running out of fuel. Investigators likewise quickly determined a helicopter pilot spraying a Turlock-area farm April 24 crashed because he didn't keep his chopper blades twirling fast enough.
The investigation of Wieveg's fatal crash began with his midmorning takeoff from Minden-Tahoe Airport.
"Mr. Wieveg taxied towards Runway 34," stated Daniel Dilks, a technician with Hutt Aviation, "and that is the last I saw him on the airfield."
The wind was calm and skies were clear, as Wieveg headed for Camarillo, Calif. At 10:25 a.m., Wieveg told Oakland-based air traffic controllers that he had an engine problem and was heading back to Minden.
"It just kind of started missing real bad," Wieveg told air traffic controllers, a transcript shows. "I'm heading back to the airport. I'll make it."
He was flying at about 12,000 feet. But within a minute, Wieveg reported that he had lost all power. Air traffic controllers began directing him toward the Alpine County Airport three miles north of the county seat of Markleeville.
"Still looking for it," Wieveg told the tower after a minute of flying.
On the ground, Woodfords High School educator Joe Voss and his students were weightlifting in the school parking lot. Voss reported he saw a plane come over a nearby hill, circle clockwise, and then head south toward Indian Creek Reservoir.
At 10:29 and 25 seconds, Wieveg said his flight designation one last time -- "One eight Charlie" -- and then all radar and radio contact was lost. Some time later, Voss's wife called him to say his emergency pager had gone off, alerting him to a possible plane crash about two miles from the airport.
Investigators subsequently downloaded engine data from Wieveg's wrecked plane that showed "fluctuations in fuel flow" as well as temperature variations "indicative of a loss of power." Further engine tests, however, did not reveal the underlying cause.
Not far from where Wieveg's plane clipped trees and flipped upside down, though, investigators identified several unobstructed fields that might have saved the amateur pilot's life had he but noticed them in the rapidly emergent moment.