Suicide by airplane – Charles Kenneth Richards — (Charles O'Rourke)

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Charles O’Rourke

January 5, 2002

Boulder, Colorado  – Charles Kenneth Richards, a 54-year-old commercial pilot from Lyons, Colorado, departed Vance Brand Airport in his Cessna 172K (N78035) at about 3:30 in the afternoon. He flew over his house (where his wife heard his airplane overhead), and continued to fly around for about half an hour. Then he began squawking 7700 (a transponder code indicating an onboard emergency), and several witnesses reported seeing the plane flying straight and level, very low, right into the side of Dakota Ridge. Anti-depression medication was found in his bloodstream during an autopsy, and his wife and his psychotherapist reported that he was being treated for severe depression. His aviation mechanic described the pilot as a “loner for the last 5 or 10 years.”


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NTSB Identification: DEN02FA017.
The docket is stored in the Docket Management System (DMS). Please contact Records Management Division
Accident occurred Saturday, January 05, 2002 in Boulder, CO
Probable Cause Approval Date: 08/26/2003
Aircraft: Cessna 172K, registration: N78035
Injuries: 1 Fatal.

On January 5, 2002, at 1558 mountain standard time, a Cessna 172K, N78035, was destroyed when it collided with terrain while maneuvering near Boulder, Colorado. The commercial pilot, the sole occupant in the airplane, was fatally injured. The airplane was owned and operated by the pilot under Title 14 CFR Part 91. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the local personal flight that had originated approximately 35 minutes before the accident. The pilot had not filed a flight plan.

Radar data indicates that the airplane departed Vance Brand Airport (elevation 5,052 feet), Longmont, Colorado, at 1523. It flew northwest, then south, and then southeast. At 1533, the airplane flew south to Louisville, Colorado. The pilot’s wife said that she heard it circle over her location (she said after many years, she knew the sound of his airplane). The pilot then flew north to Lyons, Colorado, circled the city, and then headed south again. At 1557:26, the airplane turned west, and began squawking 7700 (an emergency transmission). The last recorded radar return was at 1558:16, and the airplane’s altitude was at 6,500 feet. Calculations made from radar data, during the last 2 to 3 minutes of flight, indicate that the airplane’s ground speed was approximately 108 knots in a westerly direction.

Four witnesses, in a car driving north on highway 36 (elevation 5,530 feet), observed the airplane flying westbound across the highway. They said the airplane was flying level and straight. They all thought that the airplane was flying “very low,” and it did not turn or pull up before it impacted the mountain. Another witness, who was hiking approximately 1 mile east of the impact site, said that the airplane was flying overhead westbound “abnormally low” (estimated at 600 to 800 feet) and appeared to be flying very slow. He said the engine sounded “normal.” Moments later he heard the airplane impact the mountain.


The pilot received his private pilot certificate on October 23, 1983, and his fight instructor’s certificate on December 18, 1984. According to his FAA medical application, dated September 28, 2000, he had accumulated approximately 4,500 hours of flight experience. The airplane’s maintenance records and the airplane’s engine tachometer suggest that the pilot had an additional 176 hours of flight experience at the time of the accident. The pilot’s personal flight log indicates that he had given 2,413 hours of flight instruction.

The pilot’s flight logbook indicates that he successfully completed his last FAA required flight review on October 8, 2000, and he successfully completed an instrument competency check on the same day. His flight instructor’s certificate expired on December 31, 2000.


An autopsy was performed on the pilot by the Office of the Boulder County Coroner, Boulder, Colorado, on January 6, 2002. On March 7, 2002, the Boulder County coroner ruled the pilot’s manner of death as suicide.

The FAA’s Civil Aeromedical Institute (CAMI) in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, performed toxicology tests on the pilot. According to CAMI’s report (#200200005001), the pilot’s blood was tested for carbon monoxide and cyanide with negative results; his urine was tested for volatiles (ethanol) with negative results. The drug venlafaxine (trade name Effexor) was found in the pilot’s blood and urine; it is a prescription antidepressant. Its’ metabolite, desmethylvenlafaxine, was also found in the pilot’s blood and urine.

The pilot did not report, on his FAA medical application dated September 28, 2000, that he was taking this mood-altering prescribed medication. The FAA does not approve this medication for pilots while they are on flight status.