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NTSB: Snapchat post caused fatal distraction

Pipeline patrol pilot posted 35 seconds before striking obstacle

The NTSB found that pilot distraction created by posting to social media in flight during a low-altitude pipeline patrol was the probable cause of a 2021 crash involving a Cessna 182 that struck a radio tower guy wire in St. Louis, Michigan. The accident killed the 23-year-old pilot and sole occupant, Slade Martin.

NTSB investigators used radar and GPS data, along with a Snapchat screenshot provided by a friend of the pilot, to map the accident sequence. NTSB image.

According to the NTSB final report, the pilot was conducting a low-level pipeline patrol flight in daytime visual meteorological conditions when the aircraft struck a radio tower guy wire, shearing the left wing from the fuselage. The aircraft crashed into a dirt field about three-tenths of a mile northwest of the radio tower and caught fire, destroying most of the aircraft. A post-accident examination of the aircraft wreckage did not uncover any indication of mechanical malfunction or failure.

The NTSB report indicated the pilot was flying at an altitude between 475 and 800 feet agl with a ground track offset to the right of the pipeline. About one minute before the crash, the aircraft crossed over to the left side of the pipeline. The pilot's employer told investigators that patrol flights are typically flown to the right of the pipeline to maintain an unobstructed view of the pipeline.

During the accident investigation, two individuals reported that the pilot posted a Snapchat video that showed the terrain ahead of the aircraft while it was five to 10 miles southeast of the accident site. (Snapchat videos are automatically deleted after 24 hours, so investigators were unable to obtain the actual video.) A screenshot of the Snapchat application's location map provided by one of the individuals indicated the pilot posted the video to the application when the aircraft was 1.5 miles southeast of the radio tower. With this information, the NTSB determined the video was posted 35 seconds before the accident. The agency also determined the aircraft had already crossed over the pipeline at the time the post was shared.

“Based on the known information, it is likely the pilot was distracted while he used his mobile device in the minutes before the accident and did not maintain an adequate visual lookout to ensure a safe flight path to avoid the radio tower and its guy wires," the NTSB states in the final report. “Contributing to the accident,” the agency continued, “was the pilot’s unnecessary use of his mobile device during the flight, which diminished his attention/monitoring of the airplane’s flight path.”

Investigation of the aircraft’s flight path indicates that the pilot was likely trying to avoid the tower guy wires in the final seconds of the flight. When the aircraft was about 0.65 miles southeast of the tower, it was in a shallow right turn and started a climb from 475 feet agl. The aircraft’s final radar location was 600 feet east-southeast of the tower and heading toward the guy wires on the northeast side of the radio tower. The aircraft was flying at 1,370 feet msl, traveling at 104 knots, and climbing at 1,575 feet per minute.

Niki Britton
eMedia Content Producer
eMedia Content Producer Niki Britton joined AOPA in 2021. She is a private pilot who enjoys flying her 1969 Cessna 182 and taking aerial photographs.
Topics: Accident, Situational Awareness

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