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On October 26, 1997, approximately 1143 eastern standard time, a Cessna 172E, N3097U, was destroyed when it collided with trees near Elkton, Virginia. The certificated private pilot was fatally injured. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed for the personal flight that originated at Winchester, Virginia (OKV), approximately 1000, with an intended destination of West Palm Beach, Florida (LNA). No flight plan was filed for the flight conducted under 14 CFR Part 91.
When the pilot departed OKV, elevation 721 feet msl, the weather was reported to be: sky partially obscured, measured ceiling 500 overcast with visibility 2.5 miles. The temperature was 46 degrees and the dewpoint was 45 degrees.
One witness, the pilot's ex-wife, stated in a telephone interview that the pilot had planned to fly to the Lantana Airport (LNA), West Palm Beach, Florida, with stops en route for fuel. She said the weather at OKV at the time of departure was "...misty with light rain, you could not see very far." She was concerned about the weather after viewing the weather channel and the conditions at the airport. She reminded the pilot to call for weather information and he assured her he did. She further stated:
"He was anxious to get going. He felt he could get above the clouds. His GPS was working and he said as long as he kept that instrument steady [attitude indicator] he'd be all right. He really felt he was going to get above the clouds."
The United States Air Force reported receiving an Emergency Locator Transmitter signal, at 1258, and again at 1406. The airplane was found atop a ridgeline approximately 3,300 feet msl by a motorist, approximately 1430. The airplane was suspended in trees adjacent to the Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Forest. Weather at Charlottesville, Virginia, at 1445 was: measured ceiling 400 overcast, visibility 1.5 miles with light rain and fog.
The accident occurred during the hours of daylight approximately 38 degrees, 25 minutes north latitude, and 78 degrees, 28 minutes west longitude.
In a telephone conversation, the pilot's daughter explained that her father had flown "...off and on for years." According to FAA records, the pilot was issued his first private pilot's certificate March 31, 1951.
The pilot held a private pilot certificate with a rating for airplane single engine land. The pilot did not possess an instrument rating. His most recent medical certificate was issued April 9, 1997.
The pilot's logbook was recovered but it was incomplete. Entries reflected biennial flight reviews in 1981, 1987, 1995 and 1997. Entries for individual flights began in 1987 with 11.8 hours of flight experienced logged for that year. No previous flight experience was recorded or brought forward. Individual entries resumed April 1, 1995, and the flight experience accrued in 1995 was added to the 11.8 hours of flight experience accumulated in 1987. The pilot recorded this as his total flight experience.
By February 13, 1996, the pilot had accumulated approximately 93 hours of flight experience. However, the pilot entered "...approx. 1,000.00..." hours in the total-to-date block, with no explanation or documentation for the additional 907 hours he awarded himself. At the time of the accident, the pilot's logbook reflected approximately 1,264 hours of flight experience.
The pilot/owner purchased the airplane September 27, 1997, 29 days prior to the accident. An examination of the airplane maintenance records revealed an annual inspection was completed September 2, 1997. Neither the previous owner nor the pilot/owner recorded any maintenance after that date. The engine tachometer reflected 27 hours of time from the date of the annual inspection.
Instrument meteorological conditions were reported throughout the Shenandoah Valley and in the vicinity of the accident site during the accident flight. At the time of departure, the weather reported at Martinsburg, West Virginia, 17 miles northeast of Winchester was: ceiling 2,000 feet with 2 miles visibility in rain and fog. During the flight, weather reported at Charlottesville, Virginia, 20 miles south of the accident site was: ceiling 200 feet with 1 mile visibility in light rain and fog. At the time of the accident, weather reported at Shenandoah, Virginia, 20 miles southwest of the accident site was: ceiling 600 overcast with 2 miles visibility.
Photographs taken at the scene by the United States Park Police showed clouds to the surface and visibility less than 1/4 mile.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the pilot did not contact Flight Service for a weather briefing nor did he file a flight plan. The pilot requested no air traffic services while en route.
The airplane was examined at the site October 27, 1997, and all major components were accounted for at the scene. The airplane was suspended in a tree approximately 40 feet above ground level (agl) on top of a ridgeline approximately 3,300 feet mean sea level (msl). The wreckage path was on an upslope, measured 159 feet from the first tree strike, and was oriented 121 degrees magnetic. The second tree strike was 131 feet from the first, approximately 60 feet agl. Several pieces of angular cut wood were found along the wreckage path.
Examination of the airplane revealed that, apart from a broken windscreen, the cockpit and cabin areas were intact and uncompromised. Cockpit instrumentation was undamaged and control continuity was established to all flight control surfaces.
The airplane was removed from the scene and the engine was examined the following day. After applying a charge to the battery, the engine started and ran on the airframe utilizing the airplane's own fuel system. The engine ran to full power and the electrical and vacuum powered instruments functioned.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
An autopsy was performed on the pilot on October 28, 1997, by Dr. Lisa J. Kohler of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Richmond, Virginia.
The toxicological testing report from the FAA toxicology Accident Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, revealed negative for drugs and alcohol for the pilot.
Air traffic control radar equipment first acquired a target at 7,700feet, 15 miles southwest of the departure airport, approximately 32 minutes after N3097U departed. The straight line distance between the departure airport and the accident site measured approximately 46 miles. Examination of radar data revealed the target covered that distance in 1 hour and 43 minutes; an average speed of 27 knots. Further examination revealed the target did not maintain a constant heading and that several heading divergences were greater than 270 degrees. Three heading divergences completed 360 degrees of turn.
In a telephone interview, the previous owner of the airplane described the events on the day he sold the airplane to the accident pilot. He said that during the pre-purchase test flight, the accident pilot had trouble maintaining airspeed and nearly stalled the airplane on three occasions. The previous owner said that the pilot let the airspeed drop to 65 knots when he was instructed to maintain 85. After the flight, the previous owner initiated a discussion about V speeds for the Cessna 172E and further suggested the pilot seek a biennial flight review (BFR) in the airplane. He said the accident pilot "...bristled at the notion of a BFR...he cut me off, he said, 'Look, I've got a pilot's license, a valid medical, and my check is good'... I almost didn't sell him the airplane."
The previous owner further stated that, during the sales transaction, the weather conditions deteriorated to instrument meteorological conditions. He was aware the accident pilot did not possess an instrument rating and that the airplane he sold was not certified for IFR operations. The previous owner said, "It was strictly a VFR airplane...I offered to drive him home but he insisted on flying. He said, 'I'll just fly out over the water, I won't hit anything'."
The wreckage was released on February 20, 1998 to Mr. R. A. Paul, a representative of the owner's insurance company.