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On March 17, 2000, at 2015 central standard time (cst), a Piper PA-28-140, N4494X, operated by a private pilot, was destroyed when it impacted the terrain 8 miles northeast of Dighton, Kansas. A post-crash fire ensued. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the accident. The personal flight was being conducted under 14 CFR Part 91. The pilot filed an instrument flight rules flight plan, in flight, with Denver Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), prior to the accident. The pilot and two passengers on board the airplane were fatally injured. The cross-country flight originated at Denver, Colorado, at 1700 mountain standard time (mst), and was en route to Wichita, Kansas.
At 1452:02 mst, the pilot contacted the Denver Flight Service Station (AFSS) and filed a VFR flight plan from Front Range Airport (FTG), Denver, Colorado, direct to Benton Airport (1K1), Benton, Kansas. The pilot proposed to take off at 1700 mst. He filed an en route altitude of 7,500 feet mean sea level (msl), and estimated his time en route would be 3 hours and 45 minutes. The flight service specialist asked the pilot if he had the airmets for turbulence. The pilot replied, "Yes, I have all the airmets ... and the weather; and I'm hoping to go in VFR. If I have to, I will switch IFR in route." The flight service specialist said, "OK, I was just going to say VFR flight nots [is not] recommended because there is some IFR conditions in that area." The flight service specialist also asked the pilot if he had the airmet for icing? The pilot said, "yes."
The pilot's wife said that he contacted her from Denver, Colorado, an hour before taking off. She said that the pilot never said anything about the weather. He told her that he would be back home (Wichita) in 4 hours. The pilot's wife said that he should have arrived home at approximately 2130 cst.
At 1801:49 mst, the pilot contacted the Denver ARTCC and told them he was over the Kit Carson [Colorado] Airport at 8,000 feet msl. The pilot told the radar controller that he was "VFR on top" and that he was probably going to have to "switch to an IFR flight plan shortly, can I do that with you?"
At 1804:53 mst, the Denver ARTCC radar controller cleared N4494X to 1K1 "via direct Wichita, direct 1K1, maintain VFR on top."
At 1813:07 mst, the pilot contacted the Denver AFSS Flight Watch and requested the local conditions at Wichita Mid Continent Airport (ICT). Denver Flight Watch told the pilot, "Wichita currently reporting ... wind 110 at 7, visibility 3 [miles], light rain, mist, ceiling 500 [feet agl (above ground level)] overcast, temperature 3 [degrees Centigrade], dew point 3 [degrees Centigrade], altimeter 30.08 [inches of Mercury], ceiling 300 [feet agl] variable 900 [feet agl]." Denver Flight Watch then told the pilot, "be advised, they do have an airmet for occasional IFR conditions for the southern portion of Kansas ... VFR flight isn't recommended due to low stratus clouds ..." Before leaving Denver Flight Watch, the pilot said, " ... right now we have ... tops of clouds are about 7,000 feet. We're at 7,500 [feet] and have clouds above us also."
At 1825:16 mst, Denver ARTCC told the pilot his position was 25 miles southeast of the Goodland, Kansas, VORTAC. The pilot told the radar controller that he needed to go into ICT.
At 1825:53 mst, Denver ARTCC cleared N4494X direct to ICT.
At 1845:24 mst, Denver ARTCC instructed N4494X to contact Kansas City Center. There was no response. Between 1845:52 and 1847:59 mst, Denver ARTCC made five additional radio calls to N4494X. There were no responses from N4494X to any of the calls.
At 1848:52 mst, the pilot contacted Denver ARTCC. Denver ARTCC instructed N4494X to contact Kansas City Center. There was no response from the pilot. Denver ARTCC made two additional calls to N4494X.
At 1850:10 mst, the pilot told Denver ARTCC, "... I got you weak and scratchy ... we are now in the clouds; request IFR to ICT, 7,000 feet." The Denver ARTCC radar controller told the pilot to standby.
The Denver ARTCC radar controller began coordinating the radar handoff of N4494X with Kansas City ARTCC "Hayes Low" radar controller.
At 1851:18 mst, Denver ARTCC called N4494X and told the pilot, "... you're cleared to Wichita via direct, maintain 7,000 [feet msl]. The pilot acknowledged, "7,000 feet, direct ICT." Denver ARTCC then instructed N4494X to contact Kansas City Center. The pilot acknowledged the frequency change.
At 1854:42 mst, the Denver ARTCC radar controller contacted the Hayes low controller and said, "I'm still seeing that guy 9-4-X. He's at 6,300 [feel agl] ... I told him to maintain seven, and I don't know why he's going down."
At 1900:33 mst (2000:33 cst), the Kansas City ARTCC Hill City low controller contacted the Denver ARTCC radar controller inquiring if Denver ARTCC was still talking to N4494X? The Denver radar controller said that he wasn't, and they reconfirmed the frequency N4494X was supposed to be on. The Denver ARTCC radar controller also said that he didn't know why N4494X was at 6,000 feet msl. Denver ARTCC tried to contact N4494X several times.
At 2004:18 cst, the Kansas City ARTCC Hayes low controller told Denver ARTCC, "... he's (N4494X) like circling now."
At 2007:39 cst, Denver ARTCC radar showed N4494X 25 miles northeast of Scott City, Kansas, at 5,200 feet msl.
At 2011:12 cst, Kansas City ARTCC radar showed N4494X at 4,600 feet msl.
At 2012:20 cst, Denver ARTCC tried to contact N4494X again. There was still no response.
At 2013:53 cst, Denver ARTCC contacted Canadian Airlines International, Flight 183, and asked if they would try raising N4494X on their frequency. They said they would try.
At 2015:05 cst, Kansas City ARTCC lost radar contact with N4494X.
The airplane was at 4,500 feet msl when radar contact was lost. The airplane's position was 7 miles north and 5 miles west of the Dighton, Kansas Airport.
At 2015:16 cst, Denver ARTCC received this call from an unidentified aircraft, "Denver Center [broken transmission] four four [broken transmission]."
At 2015:23 cst, Denver ARTCC received a broken transmission from an unidentified aircraft, followed by an open mike with a whine increasing in pitch. At 2015:29 cst, Denver ARTCC received another open mike with a whine increasing in pitch.
At 2015:36 cst, Key Lime Air Flight 220 contact Denver ARTCC and told them that they just heard an aircraft over the air say he was going down. Denver ARTCC asked Canadian Airlines Flight 183 if they had heard the aircraft. They responded, "... we believe we heard the same thing that the other airplane did as well."
Denver ARTCC contacted Key Lime Air Flight 220 again to clarify what they had heard. They responded, "... we think it was twenty or twenty-five miles northeast of Goodland [Kansas] and ... just heard his call sign ... cherokee and ... some screaming in the background ... that they were going down." Key Lime 220 then told Denver ARTCC that they picked up light to moderate rime ice at 6,000 feet msl.
At 2032 cst, Denver ARTCC contacted the Lane County, Kansas, Sheriff's Office and requested assistance "in locating a plane that disappeared from radar." They were informed that the airplane was en route to Wichita, and was pinpointed at about 17 miles north-northeast of Dighton, around Utica, Kansas. The Lane County Sheriff's Office was also told that they (Denver ARTCC) heard someone say, "We're going down." The airplane had disappeared "about 15 minutes ago."
At 2058 cst, Lane County Sheriff's Deputies located the airplane.
The pilot held a private pilot certificate with single-engine land, instrument airplane rating.
The Federal Aviation Administration Airmen (FAA) Certification Branch, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, reported the pilot obtained his private pilot certificate on August 30, 1999. On March 6, 2000, the pilot obtained an instrument rating. On that date, the pilot reported on the FAA Form 8710-1, Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application, having 212 total flying hours, 40 hours instrument time, and 110 hours in the PA-28-140 airplane.
The pilot held a third class medical certificate with no restrictions, dated July 14, 1999.
The airplane was privately owned by an individual residing in Alabama. The airplane was leased to the pilot, by the owner, and was used by the pilot for pleasure, and to transport him, and the two passengers, to and from their jobs in Denver, Colorado.
According to the airframe logbooks, the airplane underwent a 100 hour inspection on September 14, 1999. At that time, the airplane had 4,589.01 total airframe hours. The airplane's owner said that on November 21, 1999, the airplane had 4,654.5 total airframe hours. The owner said that the pilot began leasing the airplane on December 1, 1999.
The pilot contacted the Denver AFSS on March 16, 2000, at 2043 mst, and received a forecast weather briefing for the following evening. The in-flight briefer told the pilot to expect marginal VFR conditions when entering Kansas.
On March 17, 2000, at 1223 mst, the pilot contacted Denver AFSS requesting a weather briefing for a VFR flight from FTG to ICT, taking off at 1700 mst. The pre-flight briefer told the pilot, "... [it] doesn't look promising ... do have airmets in effect for icing here in the Denver area, occasional moderate rime or mixed icing, clouds or precipitation to 18,000 [feet msl], and you pick up the airmet area again around Garden City, and it continues into Wichita."
On March 17, 2000, at 1245 mst, an AIRMET for ice was issued for South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi; occasional moderate rime/mixed icing in precipitation above freezing level to flight level 180 ... conditions ending west of Gage, Oklahoma, to Alexandria, Louisiana, line by 2000 mst.
The weather at Garden City, Kansas, 43 miles from the accident site on a 197 degrees magnetic heading, at 2031 cst, was reported as 100 feet above ground level (agl) overcast ceiling, 3 miles visibility with light rain, temperature 32 degrees Fahrenheit (F), dew point 32 degrees F, winds 120 degrees at 11 knots, and altimeter 29.97 inches of Mercury (Hg).
The weather at Dodge City, Kansas, 45 miles from the accident site on a 160 degree magnetic heading, at 2018 cst, was reported as 100 feet vertical visibility, 3/4 statute mile visibility with light rain, temperature 32 degrees F, dew point 32 degrees F, winds 110 degrees at 11 knots, and altimeter 29.99 inches Hg.
The weather at Liberal, Kansas, 60 miles from the accident on a 180 degree magnetic heading, at 2035 cst, was reported as 100 feet agl overcast ceiling, 1/2 statute mile visibility, temperature 32 degrees F, dew point not reported, winds 110 degrees at 11 knots, and altimeter 29.96 inches Hg.
At 2145 cst, a Kansas State Police Officer responded to the accident site from Meade, Kansas (80 miles south of the accident site). The officer said that he was "fighting a strong northerly wind while driving up." The officer said that when he left Meade, "the visibility was down to 1/8 mile with fog. When he arrived at the accident site at midnight, the visibility was about 1 mile. "That's when the rain started."
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
The Safety Board's on-scene investigation began on March 18, 2000, at 1415 cst.
The accident location was approximately 8 miles northeast of Dighton, Kansas. The accident site was located on the crest of a hill, within a rolling cow pasture, bordered on the north by County Road 220, an east-west running gravel road in Lane County, Kansas.
The airplane main wreckage consisted of the remains of the engine, cowling, and propeller, the left and right wings, the remains of the cabin and fuselage, and the empennage. The airplane was oriented on a 275-degree magnetic heading.
A ground scar preceded the main wreckage. It was located adjacent to the airplane's engine and propeller, to the west. The ground scar was 8 feet wide, 7 feet, 4 inches long, and 16 inches at its deepest point, which was located at the northwest edge. Pieces of clear Plexiglas and white fiberglass were located in the ground scar and around the southwest edge.
The airplane's engine, propeller, engine mounts, firewall and parts of the cowling, were located next to the east edge of the ground scar. One propeller blade was charred and showed chordwise scratches. The other propeller blade was bent rearward, approximately 45 degrees, beginning 12 inches outboard of the hub. It showed chordwise scratches along the leading edge, from the hub to the tip. The spinner was crushed aft to conform around the propeller hub. Impressions from the propeller mounting bolts were embedded in the spinner. The engine was bent downward and to the right from the firewall and engine mounts. The engine was intact and showed charring on the outside surfaces. The engine cowling was crushed rearward and broken open. It was charred and melted. The nose gear was crushed aft and upward into the engine exhaust. The wheel and tire were melted and consumed by fire. The firewall was separated from the airplane cabin. The top half of the firewall was bent rearward. The front and rear sides of the firewall were charred and melted. Engine control cables were attached and traced aft to the cockpit area.
The airplane's cabin area, beginning with the cockpit instrument panel, engine and flight controls, and including the pilot and copilot seats, rear passenger seats, the cabin walls and ceiling, the cabin door, and the aft baggage area, were melted and consumed by fire. Charred remains of approach charts, logbooks, a flight computer, and personal effects were found amongst the charred front seat frames.
The airplane's right wing was separated at the wing root and rested adjacent to the airplane's engine. It was crushed aft along the leading edge. The upper wing skin was buckled outward, charred and melted. The bottom wing skin was melted and consumed by fire. The right fuel tank was broken open, melted, and consumed by fire. The smell of fuel was prevalent beneath the wing. The right wing tip was broken aft longitudinally along the rivet line and fragmented. The right aileron was bent upward near min-span. It was charred and melted at the inboard edge. The right flap was melted and consumed by fire. The right main landing gear strut was bent aft. The right wheel rim and hub were melted. The right tire was consumed by fire. The wheel pant was broken off and fragmented.
Flight control cable continuity was traced from the right aileron to the fracture at the wing root. The cable was stretched and unraveled at the fracture. Aileron cable continuity was confirmed from the fracture to the control yoke in the cockpit area.
The airplane's left wing was attached to the remainder of the bottom left side cabin wall and floor. It was crushed aft along the leading edge from the wing root to the tip. The top wing skin was buckled rearward. The left flap and left aileron showed no damage. Flight control continuity to the left aileron was confirmed. The left wing tip was broken at the forward edge. The left main landing gear showed no damage.
The airplane's fuselage, aft of the cabin area to the empennage, was broken open along the top, charred, melted, and consumed by fire. The tail cone was charred and melted. The vertical stabilizer and rudder were broken aft at the base from the tail cone. The left side of the vertical stabilizer and rudder showed no damage. The right side of the vertical stabilizer and rudder was charred and melted near the base. The right side of the horizontal stabilator was charred and melted. The left side of the horizontal stabilator and trim tab showed minor damage. An 8-inch wide, 6-inch long area of the left horizontal stabilator's upper skin, at the tail cone, was melted and consumed by fire. Flight control continuity to the stabilator and rudder was confirmed.
The airplane's vacuum pump and pilot's attitude indicator gyro were retained for further testing.
An examination of the engine, engine controls, and remaining airplane systems revealed no anomalies.
Units from the Dighton, Healy, Pendennis, and Shields, Kansas Fire Departments responded to a grass fire reported by a Lane County Sheriff s Deputy at 2049 cst.
A burned grass area, approximately 8 feet wide and 63 feet long, preceded the airplane main wreckage from southeast to northwest. The burned grass area continued around the airplane main wreckage and ran northwestward for 225 feet. This area was approximately 24 feet at its widest point, near the airplane main wreckage. An additional area of burned grass ran westward from the airplane main wreckage. The burned area formed an oval-shape that was 350 feet long, east to west, and 90 feet wide near the center.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL TESTING
An autopsy of the pilot was conducted by the Liberal County Medical Examiner, at Cimarron Pathology, Liberal, Kansas, on March 20, 2000.
FAA toxicology testing of specimens from the pilot was negative for all tests conducted.
TESTS AND RESEARCH
The airplane's vacuum pump and pilot's attitude indicator gyro were examined at the Safety Board's Materials Laboratory. The examination showed that both components had been subjected to severe heating, up to the melting point of aluminum, approximately 1,000 to 1,200 degrees F. The attitude indicator gyro showed no mechanical damage to the case or rotor. The vacuum pump revealed no damage to the drive coupling, vanes, rotor, or case (See Materials Laboratory Factual Report).
Parties to the investigation were the Federal Aviation Administration, the New Piper Aircraft Company, and Textron Lycoming.
All airplane wreckage was released and returned to Crotts Aircraft Service, Incorporated, Dodge City, Kansas.