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On April 30, 2001, at 1415 eastern daylight time, a Piper PA-28R-180, N7680J, was destroyed during an in-flight collision with rising terrain and post-crash fire near Afton, Virginia. The certificated commercial pilot was fatally injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the flight that originated at the Leesburg Executive Airport (JYO), Leesburg, Virginia, about 1140. No flight plan was filed for the personal flight conducted under 14 CFR Part 91.
During a telephone conversation, a friend of the pilot's said that the pilot arrived at the Leesburg Airport, on April 27, 2001, from the Broken Straw Airport (P15), Pittsfield, Pennsylvania. The pilot visited for the weekend, and departed on Monday, April 30, 2001, to return home to Pennsylvania. The pilot planned a direct flight with no stops en route.
According to an employee of a fixed base operator (FBO) at Leesburg, the airplane was serviced with 15.4 gallons of fuel, on April 27, 2001, which topped off the fuel tanks. Examination of fuel receipts revealed that the pilot paid the bill at 1012, on April 30, 2001, just prior to his departure for Pittsfield.
A straight-line course drawn from the Leesburg Airport to the Broken Straw Airport was approximately 185 miles long and 344 degrees magnetic. A line drawn from Leesburg, Virginia to the crash site was 88 miles long and 238 degrees magnetic.
A Safety Board Air Traffic Control Specialist examined the radar data and segregated a target that traveled between the Leesburg Airport and the accident site. The times for the target's departure from the Leesburg area and the last radar hit were consistent with the airplane's departure time and the time of the accident.
The target was first identified at 1156, approximately 11 miles from the Leesburg Airport, on an approximate ground track of 340 degrees. The target continued on that track for about 15 minutes, until it was abeam the Eastern West Virginia Airport (MRB), near Martinsburg, West Virginia. It then began a ground track of 360 degrees. Three minutes later, the target began a turn to the left, and during the next hour performed three consecutive left-hand orbits in the vicinity of MRB.
After the final orbit, the target's ground track was approximately 240 degrees, and it continued on that track for about 40 minutes. When the target was abeam the Charlottesville Regional Airport, Charlottesville, Virginia, it made a right 360-degree turn. The target then continued on its 240-degree track for another 12 minutes. The last identification of the target occurred at 1412, about 5 miles from the accident site.
The target's groundspeed remained relatively constant throughout the flight, between 110 and 125 knots. Additionally, the target's encoding altimeter did not emit an altitude signal.
According to a representative of the National Park Service, a fire was reported in the Blue Ridge Parkway National Park, at 1415, on April 30, 2001. The accident airplane was located by the National Park Service during firefighting operations on May 1, 2001.
The accident occurred during the hours of daylight approximately 37 degrees, 57 minutes north latitude, and 78 degrees, 55 minutes west longitude.
The pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single engine land and instrument airplane. He also held a flight instructor certificate for single engine and instrument airplane, and an advanced ground instructor certificate.
The pilot's logbooks were not located. The pilot's most recent FAA third class medical certificate was issued on January 26, 2001. At that time, the pilot reported a total of 5,050 hours of total flight experience, 15 of which were in the past 6 months.
The maintenance logbooks were not located. The co-owner of the airplane stated that the last time he saw the logbooks, they were in the airplane. He also reported that the last annual inspection was performed on January 30, 2001.
Weather information obtained from the Leesburg Flight Service Station (FSS), Leesburg, Virginia, revealed that the pilot received an abbreviated weather briefing in person, on April 30, 2001, at 1100. The weather was described as "severe VFR" along the pilot's intended route of flight from Leesburg, Virginia, to Pittsfield, Pennsylvania. The pilot did not file a flight plan.
Weather at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport, about 20 miles from the accident site, at 1406, was reported as winds from 190 degrees at 3 knots, visibility 10 statute miles, clear skies, temperature 80 degrees F, dew point 47 degrees F, and altimeter setting 30.29 inches Hg.
Weather at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, about 26 miles from the accident site, at 1353, was reported as wind variable from 130 degrees to 230 degrees at 9 knots, gusting to 14 knots, visibility 10 statute miles, clear skies, temperature 74 degrees F, dew point 30 degrees F, and altimeter setting 30.31 inches Hg.
A survey of air traffic control facilities revealed that the pilot did not establish communication with air traffic control.
The airplane was examined at the site on May 2, 2001. All major components were accounted for at the scene. The airplane came to rest in mountainous terrain, at an elevation of 2,112 feet mean sea level (msl). The peak of the ridgeline was 3,600 feet msl.
The initial impact point (IIP) was the top of a tree approximately 60 feet tall, where the airplane's left aileron was observed. The wreckage path was oriented on a heading of 270 degrees and extended 227 feet to the main wreckage. Several pieces of angular cut tree branches were observed along the wreckage path.
The left wing was separated into six sections located along the wreckage path. The four outboard sections of the wing displayed concave dents along the leading edge of the wing, and the two inboard sections displayed severe fire damage. The ruptured left fuel tank was observed in one inboard section of the wing, with the fuel cap secured. The other inboard section of the left wing contained the left main landing gear, which was crushed against the wing. The left flap had separated into two halves at the middle hinge, and the inboard section displayed fire damage.
The right wing was separated into two sections along the wreckage path. The 5-foot outboard section contained the complete wingtip, which was pulled outward from its attachment bolts. A 1-foot wide concave dent was noted on the leading edge of the wing section, which displaced the leading edge aft. The inboard section of the right wing contained the right main landing gear strut and was located adjacent to the main wreckage. This section was destroyed by fire. The right aileron and right fuel tank were located along the wreckage path, separated from the right wing. The fire-damaged right fuel tank was ruptured; however, the fuel tank cap was secured.
The main wreckage came to rest inverted, and included the empennage, fuselage, and cockpit area. The vertical stabilizer, horizontal stabilator, and rudder remained intact and attached to the empennage. The fire damage observed on the fuselage and empennage section consisted of vertical soot markings. The elevator trim tab remained attached to the horizontal stabilator at all three hinges. The empennage was separated from the fuselage at the baggage compartment and held together by several cables. Rudder control continuity and stabilator control continuity were observed from the control surfaces to the point at which the empennage separated. The forward fuselage and cockpit area were destroyed by fire.
The fire-damaged engine was observed upright in the cockpit area, with the propeller flange facing the empennage of the airplane. The propeller was separated from the engine and the propeller spinner had separated from the propeller. Both propeller blades displayed S-bending, twisting and chordwise scratching. One propeller blade tip was broken off and one tip was curled aft about 120 degrees.
The engine was retained for further examination.
TESTS AND RESEARCH
The engine was examined on May 21, 2001, at a salvage facility in Clayton, Delaware. The engine was rotated by hand at the propeller flange, and approximately 90 degrees of rotation was established through the valvetrain and powertrain to the accessory section. The #2 cylinder head displayed impact damage and the intake and exhaust rocker arms and shaft were not located. The engine starter gear ring area and the engine starter nose housing displayed rotational scoring.
Examination of seven of the eight spark plugs revealed they were fire-damaged and their electrodes were intact. The bottom spark plug from the #1 cylinder was not located.
The fuel servo screen and oil suction screen were examined and absent of contamination.
The engine driven fuel pump was fire and impact damaged. The engine driven vacuum pump was disassembled and all vanes were intact.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
An autopsy was performed on the pilot on May 4, 2001, by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Virginia.
The FAA Toxicology Accident Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, performed toxicological testing on the pilot.
In a telephone interview, a friend of the pilot's stated that the pilot had "passed out" 3 times in the 2 weeks prior to the accident. She reported that each time he "passed out," she would lie him flat, and he would "come right back." She stated that the day before the accident, the pilot "passed out" again, and when he regained consciousness, he had no recollection of what had happened. The pilot's friend insisted that he visit his doctor when he returned home to Pennsylvania, and he agreed that he would. During the weekend visit, the pilot checked his blood pressure and took his blood pressure medication every morning. Additionally, the pilot's friend reported that the pilot had recently planned a trip to Spain; however, he was advised by his doctor not to take the trip due to his medical condition.
In a telephone interview, the pilot's doctor stated that he began treating the pilot after he passed out at his computer on November 12, 2000. The pilot was hospitalized and extensive testing was performed to determine what triggered the episode. No particular source or "trigger" was identified. The pilot was released from the hospital within a few days and he was given children's Aspirin to take in place of Zestril, which he had been previously prescribed to treat high blood pressure.
Additionally, the doctor instructed the pilot "not to fly his airplane" until they could determine a cause for the episodes. He informed the pilot that it would not be safe to fly, since he was susceptible to passing out at any time or location.
After he was released from the hospital, the pilot continued to pass out. Additional testing was performed including "tilt-table" testing and stress testing. A seizure test was also conducted on the pilot through an EEG (brain wave test), and no seizure disorders were noted. Additionally, the pilot was instructed to resume taking the Zestril as his blood pressure medication, since it was determined not to be aggravating the situation.
The pilot was diagnosed with "vascular syncope" on January 3, 2001. The doctor reported that the dysautonomic episodes, which the pilot had experienced, were a nervous system, or "vasovagal" reaction in which the heart rate and blood pressure dropped for no apparent reason. These episodes were hormonally driven, with no particular event linked to causing their occurrence.
In a telephone interview, the co-owner of the airplane stated that the pilot had just received a medical certificate; however he had also undergone a variety of medical tests. The co-owner reported that doctors could not identify any particular medical problem with the pilot, and the only medication he was aware of the pilot taking was Zantac for heartburn. The co-owner stated that the pilot would often "doze-off" during flights, and would then comment that he was "just resting his eyes."
According to the pilot's last FAA medical application dated January 26, 2001, he listed the only medication he was currently taking as Zantac 75 and Aspirin. He also stated on the application that he had never experienced dizziness or fainting spells, unconsciousness, or high blood pressure. A review of every FAA medical application on file for the pilot revealed he never reported any health problems.
The airplane was released to a representative of the owner's insurance company on June 12, 2001.