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On July 31, 1998, approximately 1515 central daylight time, a Piper J3C-85 airplane, N7018H, impacted the terrain while maneuvering near Seminole, Texas. The airplane was owned and operated by the private pilot under 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91. The airplane was destroyed and the pilot received fatal injuries. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the local flight, and a flight plan was not filed. The flight departed the Gaines County Airport, Seminole, Texas, at approximately 1412.
The following information was obtained during interviews, conducted by the investigator-in-charge (IIC), witnesses, personal acquaintances, and the airport manager. The pilot/operator had several farms south of the airport and used the airplane for aerial observation of the farms. Fueling records indicated that 9 gallons of fuel was added to the airplane on the morning of July 31, 1998. Fuel endurance time for the airplane was reported as 2 hours. The pilot conducted the preflight of the airplane about 1330 at his hangar. At 1412 the airplane was observed taxiing toward the runway. It was reported that several times per week, the pilot departed the airport and flew a route (flight path) to check his farms and look for deer in a mesquite pasture near the farms and in the rolling hill area (draw area) running through the pasture toward the north. About 2 miles from the airport, the flight path departs the draw and turns toward the airport. Normally 45 minutes to 1 hour would be the flight time for the route. On July 31, 1998, the airplane was observed flying over the farms and along the flight route at 100-500 feet agl.
On August 1, 1998, at 0023 a family member reported to the local authorities that the airplane had not returned to the airport. Search and rescue was initiated, and at 0729 the airplane was located 4 miles south of the airport in the draw.
A review of the FAA records and the pilot logbook, by the IIC, revealed that the pilot held the airplane single engine land and the glider aero tow ratings on his Private Pilot Certificate. His last third class medical certificate was issued on April 14, 1997. He first logged flight in N7081H in May 1991. According to the pilot logbooks, by May 1997, the pilot had logged 710 hours total flight time of which 429.7 hours were in N7108H.
A 65 horsepower Continental engine was originally installed at the time of aircraft manufacture in 1946. At the time of the accident, an 85 horsepower Continental engine was installed with a McCaulley propeller. The airplane was registered to the current owner on October 2, 1991. The entire aircraft was recovered with fabric in January 1992. On December 12, 1997, the last annual inspection was performed. A review of the maintenance records by the IIC did not reveal evidence of any uncorrected discrepancies.
Weather reports, reviewed by the IIC, revealed that the nearest local weather reporting station was at Hobbs, New Mexico (34 nautical miles west of Seminole, Texas). From 1349 through 1550, the Hobbs weather facility was reporting the visibility from 15 to 20 statute miles. At 1450, Hobbs reported scattered clouds at 8,000 feet with the winds from 030 degrees at 4 knots. The Area Forecast outlook for Western Texas included occasional scattered to broken clouds at 1,500 feet agl. The Terminal Area Forecast for Hobbs, valid from 1500, was for winds from 140 degrees at 10 knots with gust to 20 knots.
The National Weather Service (NWS) surface analysis chart indicated a stationary front extending from Southwest Texas through North Central Texas. The front was approximately 55 miles southeast of Seminole. NWS satellite images depicted visible moisture extending from the stationary front westward into New Mexico. Utilizing a temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit (Hobbs, New Mexico) and an airport elevation of 3,315 feet (Seminole, Texas), the density altitude at Seminole was estimated at 5,600 feet at the time of the accident.
One witness, at the airport, reported that at the time the flight departed the airport, the winds were light and variable from the south/southeast with partly cloudy skies and a temperature in the low 90's [degrees Fahrenheit]. Cumulus clouds began building in the area between 1500 and 1600. Another witness, observing the airplane flying over the pilot's farm approximately 9 miles south of the airport, stated that the winds were from the north/northeast at 10 to 20 mph with the temperature in the 90's [degrees Fahrenheit].
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION:
An on scene examination of the site (32 degrees 38.89 minutes North; 102 degrees 36.72 minutes West) was conducted under the surveillance of the IIC. The leading edge fabric of the wings was crushed aft. The outboard leading edge of the left wing was folded upward and aft. The aircraft came to rest inverted on a measured magnetic heading of 100 degrees. All aircraft components were located at the point of impact. See the wreckage diagram for additional details.
The terrain was low rolling hills estimated at 20 to 50 feet high with sparse vegetation consisting of bushes and grasses. A power line ran north and south along one of the hills approximately 300 yards east of the accident site. The area around the power line as well as the area along the flight path were examined and found unremarkable.
Flight control continuity was established at the accident site. The tachometer reading was 1,700 rpm. The airspeed indicator reading was 95 mph. The integrity of the fuel system tank and lines was compromised. The leading edges of both wings were crushed aft to the main spar. The airplane was recovered to a hangar at the Gaines County Airport for further examination.
Examination of the airplane revealed that the aft control stick was bent forward. The rear seat belt was found to have been secured to a metal plate that separated from the fuselage tubing in the metal clamp and bolt area. The fuselage structure aft of the rear seat was found bent upward with the two lower longerons bent upward into the area of the upper fuselage longerons. Aft of the bent area of longerons, the support tubes were bent downward, except for one tube, extending from the left side upper fuselage longeron diagonal down to the lower left longeron, where it was found separated from the six-tube cluster weld. Visual examination of the straight tube revealed corrosion and reduction in the thickness of the tube. The weld area also exhibited physical evidence of corrosion. The associated tubes from the six-tube cluster weld area were removed from the fuselage structure and forwarded to the NTSB Laboratory for further examination.
Examination of the engine (C85-12F, s/n 23051-6-12) confirmed continuity through the engine crankshaft to the accessory drive gears. Compression was noted on all the cylinders.
The McCauley propeller (CF 7144, s/n 594) was found secured to the engine. The propeller blades were bent and exhibited chordwise scratches. One propeller blade was twisted near the tip.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION:
The autopsy was performed by the Lubbock County Medical examiner's office, Lubbock, Texas. Aviation toxicological testing was performed by the FAA Civil Aeromedical Institute (CAMI), Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
The CAMI toxicological findings were positive for 16 (mg/dL, mg/hg) ethanol detected in the urine; 12 (mg/dL, mg/hg) ethanol detected in the blood, 5 mg/dL, mg/hg) acetaldehyde detected in the blood, 3 (mg/dL, mg/hg) acetaldehyde detected in urine. According to Dr. Canfield, CAMI, the ethanol found in blood is most likely from postmortem ethanol production. See the enclosed toxicological report for additional details.
The NTSB Materials Engineer stated that the diagonal tube (labeled "L" in the NTSB Materials Laboratory Factual Report) fractured circumferentially at the weld and did not contain noticeable bending deformation adjacent to the separation. Detailed visual examination of the separated end of the tube revealed "severe corrosion damage all around the inside diameter in the area of the fracture." Scanning electron microscope examination of the separated area revealed "some thickness of fracture features on all portions of the circumference, confirming that corrosion did not penetrate completely through the thickness of the tube." All fracture features consisted of "dimple features typical of an overstress separation." The exposed fractures of the braces and longeron near the weld area contained "features typical of overstress separation." See the enclosed report for additional details.
According to the manufacturer representative, engineers of The New Piper Aircraft Company evaluated the failed brace, indicated by "L" in the NTSB Materials Laboratory Factual Report, and determined that if tube "L" failed in flight, its load would be redistributed and carried by the other attached tubes and longeron.
The airplane was released to the pilot's estate on November 15, 1998.