On a cold snowy night on the 19th of January, 1988, the commuter Trans Colorado flight 2286 carrying 17 passengers, two of which were the crew, started from Denver and was scheduled to land at Durango. Unfortunately, the aircraft never made it to its destination.
The crash sadly claimed the life of 9 people, including the only two crew members that were also the pilots; Captain Stephen S. Silver (36) and First officer Ralph D. Harvey (42). The aircraft on the day was a Fairchild Metro III twin-turboprop aircraft.
On the surface of it, it was a pretty normal flight. Things went pretty normally and the flight was airborne, according to information derived from the survivors. Although one of the survivors suggests that she thought she smelled alcohol on the breath of the first officer Harvey, however, an autopsy report debunked that claim.
The captain of the flight, Stephen Silver was a decorated pilot with numerous flight hours under his belt. Meanwhile, information derived about the first officer Ralph didn't make for good reading.
Apparently, Ralph had failed on numerous attempts to upgrade his professional license. The information derived showed that he struggled with high-stress situations, and for something as sensitive as flying aircraft, high stress is the status quo.
According to information from the aircraft investigation team, both men resumed work by 12:30pm that day and Trans Colorado flight 2286 that reached cruise altitude by 6:53pm was their third one for the day.
The official cause of the crash was stated as pilot error and well, that's one way to look at it. After getting into comms with the flight operator at the Durango airport to announce an imminent landing operation, the flight mysteriously went off the rails and crash-landed into the woods, some kilometres away from the airport.
Information derived proved that the flight operator presented the pilots with two options to land the plane. One option was a direct route but that one had a lot of mountains and rocky formations that could affect visibility. The second and less stressful option was to circle around the runway and use a flight path with zero obstruction.
On the day of the flight, it was discovered that First officer Ralph handled controls while the captain was on instruments and comms. The decision, made by Captain Stephen, was to use the faster but more stressful route.
Here's the thing though, for most pilots, including Stephen, this route would be a cakewalk. However, for Harvey, who often struggled with high-stress situations, it was anything but that. The situation was made all the more arduous for the copilot due to the horrible weather condition. So the question is, why was Harvey allowed to handle the controls in that precarious situation?
In the past, small commuter aircraft didn't come with black boxes, so everything had to be pieced together through good old fashioned investigations. Enquiries into the activities of the two crew members on the night before proved that Captain Stephens had been partying with his fiance and they snorted some cocaine, amongst other substances.
Now I've never done cocaine, so I don't know how hard it can hit but I'm very familiar with the aftereffects of alcohol and how it can diminish/retard reaction time and logic.
Taking cocaine has been known to produce a certain kind of high, as a result of the drug sending a natural chemical receptor in the body called dopamine to parts of the brain. This often leads to a heightened sensitivity to touch, smell, decreased appetite and will basically take you to your happy place.
Just like most things in life, practice makes perfect and the more you consume, the higher your body's resistance to the substance gets. So, in essence, as time goes on, you have to consume higher quantities of the substance to feel the buzz.
To every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. For consumers of cocaine, the after-effects of the drug can vary from life-threatening to mild. The problems could vary from simple headaches to heart diseases, seizures, mood problems and in this case with Captain Stephen, deficiencies in one's attention span.
The investigation of the incident suggests that Captain Stephen must have been suffering from withdrawal at the time and didn't really think things through. It suggests that if he weren't under the influence the prior night, he might have not experienced fatigue so early and would have been in a better mental position to judge the situation correctly.
It was suggested that if it weren't for the cocaine he took the night before, he wouldn't have let the less skilled copilot navigate the tricky route and maybe, things would have gone differently that day.
The outcome of this unfortunate event led to the formation of new regulations on aircraft safety. First of all, Pilots were made to take drug tests to ascertain their mental state. Secondly, ground proximity devices and black boxes were also introduced to smaller commuter aircraft.
It is quite sad that it took this kind of tragedy to occur before these rules were introduced into the aviation industry. You'd think pilots would be more conscious of how sensitive their job is but who knows how many other times Stephen must have been flying under the influence or after-effects of drugs. Every day for the thief, one day for the owner. Unfortunately, all those lives were lost due to complacency.