The Plane Crash That Killed Reba McEntire's Band

How the accident could have been prevented

Reba McEntire - Love Somebody
••• Courtesy Big Machine

Any plane crash involving a celebrity naturally gains a lot of attention from the media, and the 1991 plane crash that killed eight of Reba McEntire’s band members is no different.

This plane crash should serve as a warning for pilots everywhere regarding a number of topics, including departure procedures, night flying hazards, controlled flight into terrain, evaluating risk, VFR/IFR clearances, and the role of flight service specialists in offering pilots guidance and advice about the flight.  

Details of the McEntire Band Plane Crash

According to the NTSB accident report, the Hawker Siddeley DH.125-1A/52 aircraft (an older version of the Hawker 800) crashed into a mountain after takeoff from Brown Field Municipal Airport on March 16, 1991. The two pilots and eight passengers on board were killed.

The flight was to be operated on an instrument flight plan from Brown Field, located just outside of San Diego’s Class B airspace, to Amarillo, Texas, which would serve as a fuel stop before continuing. The pilot spoke to the flight service specialist three times in an effort to figure out how to best depart the airport.

During the first conversation with the flight service specialist, the pilot filed an IFR flight plan. It was about 11:20 p.m. local time, and the pilot asked about departing the airport under VFR and picking up his IFR clearance once airborne. The briefer asked the pilot if he was familiar with the departure procedure, and the pilot said, “No, not really.”

The flight service specialist then attempted to look up the departure procedures in order to relay the information to the pilot, and there was some confusion about where to locate the procedures.

At about 11:53 p.m. the pilot called the flight service specialist again and reported that he wasn’t able to find the standard instrument departure procedure referred to by the specialist. During the conversation, the procedures were read to the pilot. The pilot stated that was all he needed and the phone call ended.

The pilot called a third time at 12:28 a.m. and questioned the use of an IFR departure procedure that would take him into the Class B airspace boundary without a Class B clearance. During the last phone call, the pilot questioned the specialist about that procedure, reminding him that he intended to depart VFR and suggesting that he should probably just depart to the northeast and stay VFR below 3,000 feet. The briefer agreed. 

Complications During the Flight

Neither the flight service specialist nor the pilot took into consideration the rising terrain east of the airport, and neither of them noted that the minimum sector altitude (MSA) east of the airfield, in the direction of departure, was 7,600 feet - well above the 3,000-foot altitude that the pilot chose to fly. The VFR minimum safe altitude for that particular sector was 6,900 feet.

The plane departed at 1:41 a.m. The weather at a nearby airport was reported to be clear, visibility was at least 10 miles, and winds were calm. Just one minute after takeoff, the aircraft contacted the approach control facility to request his IFR clearance and was told that his clearance had clocked out, but to stand by and the controller would put it back in the system.

The airplane crashed into the San Isidro Mountains at an elevation of about 3,300 feet just moments after being assigned a squawk code by ATC. The peak of the mountain range, according to the VFR sectional, sits at about 3,550 feet.  

Investigation of the Crash

According to investigators, the airplane’s wing hit the top of the mountain, and it cartwheeled multiple times, scattering wreckage over a wide area. The NTSB report found the probable cause of the accident to be: 

Improper planning/decision by the pilot, the pilot's failure to maintain proper altitude and clearance over mountainous terrain, and the copilot's failure to adequately monitor the progress of the flight. Factors related to the accident were: insufficient terrain information provided by the flight service specialist during the preflight briefing after the pilot inquired about a low altitude departure, darkness, mountainous terrain, both pilot's lack of familiarity with the geographical area, and the copilot's lack of familiarity with the aircraft.

This accident is a cautionary tale for all pilots to be vigilant when departing either VFR or IFR at night, especially in unfamiliar territory. The crash may have been prevented had these pilots received an IFR clearance on the ground, or looked at the minimum sector altitude (MSA) on an IFR approach or departure chart or a VFR chart.