On March 15, 1997, approximately 1220 mountain standard time, a Piper PA-28-180, N4860T, operated by Northern Colorado Air Charter, was destroyed when it collided with parked aircraft during a forced landing at Fort Collins, Colorado. One passenger sustained minor injuries, but the private pilot and two other passengers were not injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plan was filed for the personal flight conducted under Title 14 CFR Part 91. The flight was originating when the accident occurred.

The following is based on a telephone interview with the pilot, his subsequent written accident report, and witness statements. The airplane took off on runway 11. Witnesses in the airport administration building said that when the airplane passed the departure end of the runway, it was at an extremely low altitude and appeared to be "staggering out." The pilot said that after making a 45 degree right turn for noise abatement, the engine lost power. "It felt like it was operating at 1,800 rpm," he wrote, and said it felt like the throttle "came halfway out. The airplane wasn't climbing very well" (the pilot reported the same sequence of events to the Larimer County Sheriff Office, see attached report). The pilot called on Unicom and announced he was making an emergency landing on runway 29. He then made a shallow left turn to return to the airport. When the pilot reduced power, the airplane landed hard at midfield on the runway but at a 45 degree angle. The airplane continued across the ground, jumped a ditch, hit a tree, and collided with three parked airplanes before coming to a halt. The three occupants evacuated the airplane as it caught fire. N4860T was destroyed in the ensuing fire. The airplanes struck were a Beech C24R (minor damage), a Cessna 152 (destroyed), and a Piper PA-28-235 (substantial damage).

Several pilots flying in the traffic pattern heard the emergency call on the radio and observed the accident. They noted the nose high attitude of the airplane, and said the pilot should have landed in the field adjacent to the runway.

When the pilot was interviewed by telephone, he stated that an employee of the operator helped clean snow off the wings. The employee denied this, stating he only gave a broom to the pilot. When the employee noticed the pilot was having difficulty starting the engine, he assisted by performing a "flooded" start. When he exited the airplane, he noticed snow and ice on the wings and told the pilot he would have to remove it before flying. The pilot said he cleaned the wings off again. The the non-pilot rated passengers said they went inside the administration building to keep warm. This time they did not assist the pilot in cleaning the airplane nor did they observe him cleaning the airplane. The two rear seat passengers said that when they reboarded the airplane, the wings had been cleaned off.

The pilot said he leaned the mixture for takeoff, using a power setting of 2,000 rpm "because this is what I had been taught." According to Textron Lycoming, the mixture should be leaned at full (takeoff) power. If the mixture is leaned at a power setting less than full power, the mixture will enrich as power is applied.

The passengers were individually interviewed by telephone. The passenger seated in the right front seat said the pilot used a broom to clean snow off the wings. He cleaned the airplane by himself. The passenger preoccupied himself with "wiggling the controls (surfaces)." After takeoff, he watched the engine instruments and did not recall the engine losing power. What got his attention was that the airplane was low and was not climbing. He did not remember if there was any ice or snow on the wings prior to departure. The passengers in the rear seats said the airplane "was in a slow climb," or "didn't climb very fast" until "it could not climb anymore." Neither passenger said anything about a power loss. The passenger in the right rear seat did say that when they first inspected the airplane, there were icicles hanging from and approximately 2 inches of snow on the wings. He said he and his wife assisted the pilot and used their arms to brush snow and ice off the wings. He said the wings were clean before they took off.

Two days later, the engine was examined at Beegles Aircraft Service in Greeley, Colorado, with a representative of Textron Lycoming in attendance. Drive train continuity was established. The spark plugs were of normal color and burn pattern. The left magneto sparked when turned by hand. The plastic distributor gear in the right magneto had melted and the unit could not be functionally tested. The carburetor contained residual fuel and was unremarkable. No evidence was found that would preclude power from being developed.

Weight and balance calculations were made. Using the weights given by the occupants to the Larimer County Sheriff's Office; the aircraft empty weight contained in the Airplane Flight Manual; full fuel, oil, and no baggage, it was estimated the airplane weighed 2,388.2 pounds. The airplane's maximum gross weight is 2,400 pounds. The center of gravity was 91.85 inches aft of datum. Center of gravity limits (at that weight) is 91.0 inches to 95.9 inches aft of datum.

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