BALKO, Oklahoma - The National Transportation Safety Board blames the pilot and the sun for a crash in which he died last August. But the NTSB also says the incident demonstrates how dangerous temporary meteorological towers can be.
Jason Martin, 34, died when his single-engine crop dusting airplane hit a temporary meteorological tower, or MET, on August 5, 2013.
Martin had taken off from Perryton, Texas in a 1983 Air Tractor with a load of herbicide when the propeller-driven plane hit the 197-foot tower near Balko, Oklahoma at about 10 o'clock that morning. Balko is just north of Highway 412 near the eastern end of the Oklahoma panhandle.
The impact sheared off the upper section of the tower and the airplane's right wing, causing the aircraft to spin out of control and crash. The NTSB says Martin was a commercial-rated pilot with 1,750 hours of flight time.
In its final report on the crash, the NTSB says the probable cause was the pilot's failure to stay clear of the tower and a contributing factor was the sun's glare. The NTSB says a witness reported that Martin had flown past the tower several times that day, but on the fatal flight the sun was behind and just to one side as he approached it.
In the report the NTSB also pointed out that in May, 2013 it had warned the FAA, the American Wind Energy Association and numerous other agencies that METs pose a threat to low-flying pilots and recommended that they be required to be registered, marked and even lighted, where feasible.
The tower in this collision was erected by Apex Wind Energy in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"The accident near Balko was a terrible tragedy. We are keeping the family of the pilot in our thoughts and prayers," said Dahvi Wilson, Apex Wind Energy Communications Manager. "Agricultural aviation can be hazardous, and because wind energy projects are often on rural farmland, it is important that we continue to cooperate with the FAA to prevent these kinds of accidents from occurring."
Wilson wouldn't say how many METs Apex has installed around the country or in Oklahoma, except to say that it generally has 2-4 towers per wind energy project. She said the company has never experienced an incident like this at any of its METs.
Because the tower was below 200 feet in height, it was not required by the FAA to be marked. The NTSB did not find any fault with Apex or its tower and photos taken by the investigator show the top of the tower was painted orange and white to increase its visibility.
"We recognize that it is difficult to establish uniform marking requirements due to differences in site features from one project to the next, but we believe it is important that meteorological towers are marked and visible to promote safety," said Wilson.
Arnold Terhune, the owner of the crop dusting company that Martin flew for, seemed frustrated when he filled out the NTSB's accident report form immediately after the crash happened. "Have small towers marked better," he wrote. "They are very difficult to see."
The problem is, no one seems to know how to make that happen.