Pilot’s low-flying thrill ride over Miss. River killed him, wife

The National Transportation Safety Board says last October’s fatal plane crash in Ramsey, Minn., was caused by the pilot’s decision to fly low over the Mississippi River, confirming witness reports at the time (See “The danger of flying low over the Mississippi“).

Chad J. Rygwall, 47, and his wife, Jill, 48, of Princeton, Minn., died when their Cessna 172 struck power lines and plunged into the river. They likely never saw the lines, which were below the tree line. The pilot may have been blinded by a setting sun, the NTSB said.

“It is likely that the position of the sun in relation to the power lines hindered the pilot’s ability to identify the hazard as he navigated the bend in the river at low altitude. In addition, the location of the power lines relative to the river bend minimized the reaction time to avoid the lines, the NTSB said in its final report, much of it is based on a video being taken at the time.

The NTSB said the blame for the crash lies with the pilot’s decision to fly so low, and indicated that the pilot’s flight instructor, who described Rygwall as “reckless,” had counseled him to stop flying at such a low altitude.

Investigators said the airplane was fewer than 100 feet above the river and within 400 feet of the residences located along the river during the final portion of the flight, both of which violate FAA regulations for safe flight, they said.

  • MrE85

    Ugh, That horrible sound.

  • I guess this means the official report pretty much confirms what most of us thought shortly after the news story came out. No surprise, really – but good to know the NTSB does a complete investigation as a matter of course and doesn’t simply make assumptions.

    • Hamliner

      Agree. In the boating world, learning from bad examples is provided by a compelling insurance industry book: Seaworthy: Essential Lessons from Boat U.S.’s 20-Year Case File of Things Gone Wrong

  • KTFoley

    “counseled him to stop” ?

    I totally get individual freedom & responsibility, I do. But maybe something stronger — a refusal to sign off, a sharp jab with a stick — might have been more effective?

    And before we go to flight details, I have no idea what the instructor can & cannot sign or refuse to sign. But somewhere there’s got to be a line that says my student is reckless and I am unwilling to put my name on whatever permits him to take a plane up in the air.

    Please note that my sympathy is with the instructor because no doubt he or she has been wrestling with a similar question for seven months now.

    • Once you’ve got a pilot certificate, only the FAA can take it away.

  • Mike Coster

    Bob: That is not a C172, looks like a C170. You should know the difference, I would think.

    • It’s a 172. NTSB says so. FAA registration says so. If you’ve got other info, go ahead.

      If your assertion is based on the tailwheel, lots of 172s were converted for Backcountry

      The tell is the vertical stabilizer. The 170’s is round at the top.

      • Mike Coster

        Good observation on the tail. I apologize for my comment on less than complete facts.

  • theoacme

    Bob, reading the NTSB final accident report, a few questions from a non-pilot (some you may consider obvious, and I may not use the correct terminology, but I’m not a pilot):

    1 – If I read the report right, because the aircraft was within 30 miles of MSP International, FAA regulations that require automatic altitude reporting from all planes in that area should have been followed, correct?

    2 – The aircraft’s horizontal position was tracked by ATC radar, but no vertical (Mode C) data was available. What is the normal procedure from ATC within the 30 mile zone in such a situation (in other words, how serious is an aircraft with non-functioning Mode C equipment considered in the 30 mile zone)?

    3 – The flight was a takeoff and return from Princeton, but the aircraft flew within 30 miles of MSP International. At what point does a private aircraft have to file a flight plan when its flight takes it within the 30 mile zone of MSP International, if any?

    4 – ATC radars at MSP International surely are top-of-the-line quality, but how low would an aircraft have to fly to not be detected by the radars?

    5 – Transponder, is its purpose merely to identify the aircraft to the ATC radars, or can they do more than that? (For instance, does the transponder signal also contain available Mode C altitude data, or is the Mode C data transmitted separately?)


    • 1. Yes, airplanes are required to have a Mode C transponder within 30 nm of a Class B (MSP, in this case) airport. It is possible to get a waiver for these things — Piper Cubs don’t have electrical systems, for example. And it’s also possible to turn the Mode C off. This report only says the info was unavailable; not sure if that’s saying the fault was the transponder. I know of a pilot or two who turn transponders off when they’re doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing, although I don’t think that was an issue here. But maybe. All of this stuff is being replaced by ADS-B, which will be required on all aircraft within a year and a half.

      2. It’s not real serious. I’ve been over the Cleveland without a Mode C, but i was talking to controllers at the time. Keep in mind the controllers don’t really care much what you’re doing if you’re not in THEIR airspace and in this case there’s no reason they would have been paying attention to them, although he was pretty darned close to being in Crystal’s Class D airspace. The airspace for MSP in this area is 3,000 feet MSL so he was well below being a concern.

      3. A pilot flying VFR doesn’t have to be on a flight plan anywhere (unless there’s a temporary flight for a big event or visiting dignitary). He/she DOES need to communicate with a controller when entering airspace. He/she CAN, for example, go into Crystal’s Class D airspace just by being in contact with Crystal tower. he/she doesn’t need permission.

      The Class B is another story. You DO need permission to enter. And a pilot has the option of asking for “flight following” while flying VFR. The controller will ask for an “ident” — which is a button on your transponder which makes you light up on his/her screen — and then give you a distinct transponder code. But even then, the responsibility for see-and-avoid is entirely the pilot’s.

      The one and only normal job of controllers is to keep aircraft separated from each other.

      Here’s an example of how that process works:


      Personally, I LOVE talking to controllers and being in the system, but a lot of people do not. And, of course, a controller wouldn’t agree to give you flight following if you told him your altitude is going to be 200 feet over a congested area.

      4) There are LOTS of gaps in radar and radio coverage in Minnesota for, I guess, all the usual reasons. I’m not sure how low you’d have to go to avoid being seen, but,again, if you’re not in a B or C or D airspace, they wouldn’t be paying any attention to you anyway. For all they know, you’re an amphib about to land on the Mississippi.

      But there’s nothing that can do anyway because they don’t know what frequency you’re on so there’s no way they’d be able to call and ask you what you’re doing anyway.

      5) That’s pretty much it. All they do is send out a code that might tell controllers something — VFR, for example… or that you don’t have a radio, have been hijacked, or have an emergency. I’m not sure how much information is in the packet. Not much, I suspect, because I always had to tell them what kind of plane I was flying. ADS-B installations will provide more information to them.

      • theoacme

        I live in easy walking distance of MKIC (I use Crystal Airport for my meteorlogical observation point).

        As I said, I’m not a pilot, so let’s see if I understand correctly: there can be multiple Class D airspaces within the MSP Class B airspace, because Class B only applies to aircraft above 3,000 feet MSL? And the Class D airspaces are controlled in a manner that the Class B airspace isn’t compromised?

        And thus, for general aviation in a Class D airspace, it’s imperative that a pilot know where s/he is at all times, because VFR flight rules require this of pilots, and no ATC can possibly track everything?

        And is it fair to say that even very experienced pilots, before taking off on a flight, remind themselves of this?

        Even then, things can happen; the other Bob Collins crash, a mid-air collision, in Waukegan, on February 8, 2000, comes to mind, he had over 1200 flight hours, and there were more multiple factors involved than this incident, but his inaccurate knowledge of where he was (possibly combined with his inexact reporting to Waukegan ATC of where he was on final landing approach) was definitely a factor…

        …all this makes me not want to try a flight (I’ve never flown in my five decades-plus life), and I’ve been curious enough to look into demo flight offers from time to time…

        …but, a part of me still wants to try, just once…

        The link to the NTSB narrative report on the Waukegan mid-air collision:


        • The Class B (MSP) airspace is a unique beast. You have to think not only in terms of lateral boundaries, but also vertical ones. The most often used description is an upside down wedding cake. It has rings. It has vertical boundaries and lateral boundaries.

          For example, close (within 5 miles) of MSP, the airspace is Class B all the way to the surface and all the way up to 10,000 feet. That would be roughly the high bridge in St. Paul, Highway 52 in Inver Grove Heights and I thinks somewhere around one of the lakes in Minneapolis, and US Bank and TCF Stadium, and over by Target Center. (I’m posting the VFR sectional map so you can see ).

          Beyond that ring, the floor of the Class B is 2300 feet (all of these are sea level, by the way) and the top is still 10,000, go our a little farther and the floor is 3,000 feet, then 4,000 feet, and in some areas 7000 feet.

          And when you think about it, it makes sense. The jets are going up and coming down to MSP and there’s no reason to have airspace to the surface out your way because the jets are still high on a normal glideshope to MSP. If you look at the sectional map, you’ll also notice little cutouts where the floor of the airspace is lower than some airspace left or right of it because those cutouts align (roughly) with a runway.

          If you check the sectional, you can see that the southeast part of the Crystal area (segmented blue circle) has a 3,000 foot floor for the Class B (MSP), while the rest of it is 4000. (This is designated by what looks like a “fraction” in bold numbers in the rings. The solid blue line designated Class B boundaries of one type or another.

          Lying UNDERNEATH the Class B are Class D airspace corresponding to an airport. The number in brackets indicates the TOP of the Class D airspace. So for Crystal airspace, it goes from the surface to 3400 feet — indicated by [34]– and the Class B airspace begins at 4,000. So if you wanted to — I guess — you could fly at 3600 right over the top of Crystal and not have to talk to anybody (which would be stupid).

          The Class B airspace is primarily for separation of jets. Class D and C and B airspace is primarily a matter of cloud clearance for VFR airplanes and separation and sequencing at a much less busy facility.

          For example, Class D airspace you have to stay 1000 feet above, 500 below and 2000 laterally away from a cloud and you have to have three miles visibility (which isn’t much).

          The only time airspace is Class D is when there’s an operating control tower. When Crystal tower closes at 10pm, it becomes Class E airspace. Cloud clearances are roughly the same but you no longer are required to establish communications to enter it.

          Class B is usually 24 hours a day, you need permission to enter it.

          Yes,you’re correct , you MUST pay really close attention where you are when you’re flying in areas like the Twin Cities. And the rule is that a pilot is responsible for the safe conduct of flight . It’s his/her job to fly properly; it’s not ATCs. You just do NOT want to bust Class B airspace. You don’t want to bust Class D either but it’s usually not as busy.

          Ultimately, it’s see and avoid up there.

          When I get the new airplane finished, I’ll be happy to take you up and we’ll fly around the Class B ring and you can see how it all works and it almost always works.

          There was, by the way, the famous midair over downtown St.Paul in the early ’90s. That downtown airport has a crazy runway configuration and a woman and her husband transporting blood supplies were flying downwind on the east side for — at that time — runway 12. And a student and CFI were flying downwind for 14 on the west side.

          Both turned “base leg” which requires them to fly right at each other. The controllers had just handed off duties from one to another and the woman had improperly transmitted her location, got confused, and turned right into the other plane. They crashed over the Gillette plant.

          You don’t want to do that.

          ADS-B is going to make things a LOT safer because you’ll be able to get traffic advisories in the cockpit and see everything on your screen that a controller sees on his/hers.