This September 2008 accident report is provided by the National Transportation Safety Board. Published as an educational tool, it is intended to help pilots learn from the misfortunes of others.
Aircraft: Cessna Cardinal. Injuries: 1 Serious, 3 Minor. Location: Truckee, Calif. Aircraft damage: Substantial.
What reportedly happened: The pilot took off from the mountain airport with a density altitude of about 8,000 feet and gusting winds. According to calculations by an FAA inspector, the airplane was loaded to within about 50 pounds of its maximum gross weight. After lifting off, the plane climbed to about 200 feet above ground level, and then started to sink as it encountered downdrafts over the mountainous terrain. The pilot turned back toward the airport as the airplane continued to descend. Prior to reaching the airport, the wheels momentarily touched the terrain, but the plane became airborne again. The left wing hit the ground, causing the airplane to cartwheel.
According to the pilot, the way to prevent such an accident from reoccurring is, “To not fly in the mountains when the gross weight is close to the maximum.”
Probable cause: The improper decision to take off in a heavily loaded airplane under the ambient conditions that existed at the time. Contributing to the accident was the mountainous/hilly terrain, a high density altitude, gusty winds and downdrafts.
For more information: NTSB.gov