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On March 27, 1999, approximately 0852 mountain standard time, a Piper PA-32-300, N56306, was destroyed when it impacted terrain while maneuvering near Pagosa Springs, Colorado. The private pilot and two passengers were fatally injured. The aircraft was being operated by the Foxtrot Flying Club, Inc., of Urbandale, Iowa, and no flight plan was filed. The flight originated from the Durango-La Plata County Airport, Durango, Colorado, at approximately 0819, and was en route to Perry, Iowa. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed in the accident area.
According to the Foxtrot Flying Club, the pilot, Dr. Richard A. Miller, rented the aircraft for the purpose of flying himself, his wife and son to Durango for a fishing vacation they had planned. According to Durango airport personnel, the pilot of N56306 arrived with his family on the evening of March 24. Upon their arrival, the pilot requested that the aircraft be topped off with fuel. According to a fuel receipt provided by the airport, N56306's fuel tanks were filled with 36.8 gallons of fuel the following morning.
According to FAA records, the pilot of N56306 requested a weather briefing from the Denver Automated Flight Service Station (AFSS) on the evening of March 26 for a VFR flight from Durango to Des Moines, Iowa. The briefer advised the pilot that VFR flight was not recommended, with AIRMETs (airman's meteorological information) for mountain obscurement along the mountains of Colorado, moderate isolated severe turbulence below 16,000 feet, and occasional moderate rime or mixed icing from 10,000 to 24,000 feet. When asked by the pilot what the conditions would be like for the following day, the briefer advised the pilot that a cold front was moving into Colorado, with low pressure moving from western Colorado out to the east, and rain showers and thunderstorms across western Kansas and southern Nebraska. He stated that IFR conditions were likely to be present in the morning hours along all of eastern Colorado and most of Nebraska.
At approximately 0600 on the morning of March 27, the pilot again requested a weather briefing from Denver AFSS along the same route of flight. The pilot was advised that a frontal system was moving through Colorado, with a chance of thunderstorms over western Kansas and Nebraska throughout the morning and afternoon. He was advised that VFR flight was not recommended, with AIRMETs for mountain obscurement through the mountains of Colorado and precipitation throughout the day, occasional moderate turbulence throughout the route, and occasional moderate rime or mixed ice from the freezing level to 20,000 feet in clouds and precipitation.
According to a National Car Rental receipt, Dr. Miller returned his rental car at the Durango Airport at 0758 on the morning of March 27. During the investigation, no witnesses were found that observed the actual departure of N56306 from Durango.
On March 29, 1999, approximately 0637 mst, N56306 became the subject of an ALNOT (alert notice) after being reported overdue by family members when it failed to arrive at its destination of Perry, Iowa, at their proposed arrival time of 1500 central standard time on the afternoon of March 27, 1999. The family reportedly had plans to celebrate their daughter's birthday later that afternoon. A search was initiated by the Civil Air Patrol, and on the morning of April 7, 1999, a faint ELT signal was detected. At 1000, the aircraft was located. The bodies of the three occupants were retrieved on April 14.
The pilot, Dr. Richard A. Miller, age 46, was born on April 7, 1952. He held Private Pilot Certificate No. 483622091, dated July 24, 1994, with an airplane single-engine land rating. He was not instrument rated. He possessed a third class airman medical certificate, dated June 19, 1997, with no restrictions or limitations. According to the pilot's logbook, he began flying on June 18, 1993. Since that time, he accumulated a total of 239 hours, and 14 hours in the past 90 days. His most recent biennial flight review was accomplished on July 31, 1996.
N56306 was manufactured by the Piper Aircraft Corporation in 1973. It was equipped with a Lycoming IO-540-K1A5 reciprocating, fuel-injected engine, rated at 300 horsepower, a Hartzell 2-bladed, all-metal, constant speed propeller, and fixed landing gear. According to the aircraft's maintenance records, the last annual inspections on the engine and airframe were performed on June 17, 1998, at a tachometer time of 5944.0 hours. At that time, the engine had accumulated 416.0 hours since the last major overhaul. The engine and airframe had accumulated 436.52 hours since the last annual inspection, and 852.52 hours since the last major overhaul.
At 0853, weather conditions at Durango, the closest weather reporting facility, located 50 miles west of the accident site, were: wind variable at 3 knots, visibility 10 statute miles, sky condition 2,100 feet broken, temperature 45 degrees F. (7 degrees C.), dew point 39 degrees F. (4 degrees C.), and an altimeter setting of 29.90 inches of mercury.
According to the ranch foreman who worked on the property surrounding the accident area, there were low clouds throughout the day obscuring the peaks, with periodic snow showers. At 1037 on the day of the accident, a pilot reported that that cloud tops were between 14,000 to 15,000 feet near Chama, New Mexico (17 nm southeast of the accident location), and that the mountains were obscured from the north of Chama to the Wolf Creek Pass area (20 nm north/northwest of the accident location.)
According to surface analysis data provided by the National Weather Service (NWS), on the morning of March 27, a broad area of low pressure was over Colorado. Also, a weak cold front extended from central Nevada and Utah to along the Wyoming-Colorado border. According to satellite data, the rising terrain at the north end of the Chalk Mountains was obscured by clouds with tops to 15,000 feet.
Based on the recorded altimeter setting at Durango near the time of the accident, density altitude at the accident site was calculated to be 13,248 feet.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
Immediate travel to the accident site was delayed due to avalanche conditions and high snow levels. The on-scene investigation commenced on July 13, 1999. The aircraft was located in a snow chute area at a location of 37 degrees 08.366 north longitude, 106 degrees 44.405 degrees west latitude. The airplane was found along a 35 degree inclining slope on the east side of Chalk Peak (elevation 12,031 feet msl) at the 11,480 foot level.
The aircraft impacted terrain along a flight path of 230 degrees magnetic at approximately the 11,700 foot level and traveled farther up the mountain. The aircraft then appeared to slide backwards and roll over in an inverted position, coming to rest in a gathering of trees. The terrain was covered by several feet of snow when the accident occurred, and an additional five to seven feet of snow fell subsequent to the accident prior to the aircraft being located. At that time, both wings remained attached to the fuselage.
All major components of the aircraft were accounted for at the accident site. The tail section of the aircraft was separated and found 150 yards downhill from the fuselage, and the left wing was found 200 yards above the main fuselage. The engine was attached to the main fuselage, and the right wing was partially connected by cables. The propeller assembly remained attached to the engine's crankshaft.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
An autopsy (MMH-CA-40-99) on the pilot was performed by Dr. Thomas M. Canfield, M.D., a Forensic Pathologist, on April 15, 1999 in Montrose, Colorado. A toxicology protocol on the pilot was performed by the FAA's Civil Aeromedical Institute (CAMI) in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Carbon monoxide and cyanide analysis was not performed, and no ethanol was detected in the blood. Acetaminophen, at a level of 2.5 ug/ml, ug/g, was detected in the blood. Acetamonophen is an over-the-counter pain reliever, often referred to by one of its common trade names, Tylenol.
TESTS AND RESEARCH
According to radar data provided by the Denver Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), a primary radar target was first observed at 0819:26, one and one-half nautical miles east of the Durango Airport climbing on a southeasterly heading. At 0838:10, the aircraft appeared to turn left towards the northeast. At that time, the primary targets became less frequent due to a lack of radar coverage in mountainous terrain. The last altitude encoding radar target was observed at 0835:46, at an altitude of 11,800 msl. The last primary target was observed at 0851:36, at a location of 37 degrees 11.15 minutes north latitude, 106 degrees 40.27 minutes west longitude. According to the data, the aircraft appeared to have initiated a left turn towards the southwest prior to impact. The airplane was found approximately 4.25 nautical miles southwest of the last observed radar target.
On August 4, 1999, the engine was run in a test cell at the facilities of Firewall Forward in Fort Collins, Colorado. No abnormalities or discrepancies were found.
In addition to the Federal Aviation Administration, parties to the investigation were The New Piper Aircraft, Inc., and Textron Lycoming.
The aircraft, with the exception of the engine and propeller, was released to a representative of the owner's insurance company on July 13, 1999. The engine and propeller were released on August 4, 1999.