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On Saturday, April 29, 2000, approximately 1045 mountain daylight time, a Piper PA-32-300, N216BC, impacted the terrain while maneuvering about 12 miles south of Fort Smith, Montana. The private pilot and his passenger received fatal injuries, and the aircraft, which was owned and operated by the pilot, was destroyed. The 14 CFR Part 91 personal pleasure flight, which departed Helena, Montana, about 90 minutes earlier, was being operated in an area where low ceilings and snow squalls had been reported. No flight plan had been filed, and there was no report of an ELT activation.
According to family members, the pilot and his passenger flew from Sheridan, Wyoming, to Helena on the day prior the accident in order to visit relatives. The purpose of the subject flight was to return to their home in Sheridan. The pilot reportedly had planned to depart Helena earlier that morning, but had delayed his departure because of local weather conditions. The pilot eventually departed Helena at 0910, but failed to arrive in Sheridan as expected. He did not make use of Air Traffic Control services while en route. When the passenger did not arrive at work on Monday, May 1, a search was initiated for the aircraft. It was located the same day on a plateau in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
The 1056 weather observation (METAR) taken at Billings, Montana, which is located about 48 nautical miles northwest of the accident site, at 3,649 feet above mean sea level (MSL), indicated winds 290 degrees at 9 knots, 10 statute miles visibility, light rain, 1,500 broken, 2,000 overcast, temperature of 41 degrees Fahrenheit, dew point of 34 degrees, and an altimeter setting of 30.11 inches of Mercury.
The 1056 METAR from Sheridan Wyoming, which is located about 42 miles east of the accident site, at 4,021 feet MSL, indicated winds of 330 degrees at 14 knots, 10 miles visibility, a ceiling of 1,600 broken, 2,100 overcast, a temperature of 41 degrees, a dew point of 34 degrees, and an altimeter setting of 30.08 inches.
According to witnesses who were in the Fort Smith area, which is located about 12 miles north of the crash site, there were variable low clouds, rain, and snow over the northern part of the Big Horn Mountains about the time of the accident. According to these individuals, although conditions were slowly improving throughout the morning, the ceilings occasionally lowered significantly during this clearing process.
A pilot who flew through the area about two hours after the accident reported that the clouds were down to about 6,000 feet MSL, and that they reached to the ground around the rising terrain. He also reported there was a mixture of snow and rain falling in the area, and that some ice accumulated on his aircraft while flying in precipitation under the clouds.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
The wreckage was located in the northern part of the Big Horn Mountains, at the 6,200 foot-level of Little Bull Elk Ridge, about one-quarter mile northwest of Whiskey Coulee Spring (North 45 degrees, 10.82 minutes, West 108 degrees, 1.86 minutes). The initial impacted scar, which was at the beginning of a wreckage distribution path that ran on a magnetic heading of 168 degrees magnetic, was on an open grassy knoll just east of the crest of the ridge. The terrain along the impact path followed an up-slope of about five degrees, and the terrain running 90 degrees to the right of the impact path was at an up-slope of about 18 degrees. The first impact mark was made by the left main gear, and was about four inches deep and about one foot long. About 11 feet to the right of that impact scar, and about two feet further down-track, was an almost identical impact scar made by the right main gear. About three feet further down track was a shallow 34 foot-wide impact scar, which roughly outlined the wing structure of the aircraft. Immediately in front of this scar, and centered between its lateral boundaries, was an eight inch-deep crater, which measured six feet long and four feet wide. Twenty-seven feet down-track, and about three feet left were the right main gear and the nose wheel fork. Seven feet further and three feet left of track were the nose wheel and the propeller. Sixty-four feet down-track and 18 feet left was the right (forward) cabin door. Eighty-two feet down-track and nine feet to the right was the glass-cloth remains of the fiberglass right wing tip tank. The tank resin structure had been consumed by fire. The primary wreckage, including the fuselage and wing structure were located 105 feet from the initial impact point. The fuselage, which was consumed by fire from the engine accessory section to just aft of the passenger cabin, came to rest on a heading of 190 degrees. Both inboard wing tanks were ruptured and had partially burned, and the left wing-tip tank, which was still attached, was destroyed by fire. The only two components located past the primary wreckage were the cargo door (left side), which was located 134 feet down track and 23 feet right, and the propeller spinner, which was located at the 160 foot point and five feet right of center.
The engine was still attached to the engine mount, and the mount to the firewall. The propeller had separated from the crankshaft flange, and it showed significant torsional bending on both blades. Each blade had heavy chordwise scaring along its span and numerous deep leading edge gouges on its outboard half. One blade was bent back about 90 degrees, and the tip of the other was bent back in an arc of almost 180 degrees. Both magnetos received fire damage and were therefore unable to produce a spark. All of the top spark plugs displayed normal grayish coloring, with no evidence of excessive lead buildup or foreign material contamination. Although there was very little leading edge damage on the wings, the underside, just aft of the leading edge, showed significant rearward deformation. The flaps were found in the up position, and continuity was established to all flight controls. The fuel selector valve was found on the right wing tip tank. The nose gear and right main landing gear had separated from the airframe upon impact.
ADDITIONAL DATA AND INFORMATION
The day after the accident (Sunday), a pilot flying through the area spotted the wreckage and advised the Montana Aeronautics Division. Because the location the pilot reported was within one mile of a known wreckage from a previous crash, the Division checked to see if there were any aircraft reported overdue or missing. Since there were none reported, they incorrectly concluded that the pilot had actually spotted the old wreckage. The new wreckage was found on Monday, when the subject airplane was reported missing, and an aircraft was dispatched to the area reported by the passing pilot.
An autopsy was performed on the pilot, and the cause of death was determined to be multiple traumatic injuries sustained during the airplane crash. The pilot's severe thermal injuries were determined to be postmortem.
The Federal Aviation Administration's Toxicology and Accident Research Laboratory completed a forensic toxicology on the pilot. There was no ethanol or drugs detected in his urine, and no cyanide was detected in his blood. Testing for carbon monoxide was not completed due to a lack of suitable specimens.
At the request of officials of the Crow Indian Reservation, the wreckage of the aircraft was left at the accident site after completion of the field portion of the investigation.