On February 23, 2002, at 1140 eastern standard time, a Piper PA-28-180, N7345W, registered to a private owner and operated by the commercial pilot, broke up in-flight over the Fort Drum Wildlife Management Reserve, in Vero Beach, Florida. The personal flight was operated under the provisions of Title 14 CFR Part 91, and instrument flight rules. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed and an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plan was filed. The commercial pilot and passenger sustained fatal injuries, and the airplane was destroyed during the in-flight breakup and post-crash fire. The flight originated from West Palm Beach, Florida, on February 23, 2002, at 1113.

On February 22, 2002, at 2006 the pilot called Miami Automated Flight Service Station (AFSS) on the telephone and stated that he would be departing North County Airport for the Orlando Executive Airport IFR. He stated that he had the weather but wanted the departure and destination airport weather again as well as the winds at 3,000 feet. When asked, the pilot stated that he had the flight precautions. The requested weather was provided along with the destination forecast and an advisory that the weather was worse then forecast. The briefer stated that he would not go if he did not have to with the current weather.

At 1029 the day of the accident the pilot telephoned Miami AFSS on the telephone and advised that he wanted to go IFR from North County Airport to Orlando in thirty-minutes. The AIRMET for IFR conditions was given and a weather briefing was provided. The pilot was advised that Visual Flight Rules were not recommended, and an IFR flight plan was filed.

At 1110 the pilot picked up his IFR clearance. At 1113 The pilot checks in with the north departure controller. The pilot was instructed to climb and maintain 5,000 feet, fly heading 360, and he was cleared to ORL via radar vectors. At 1116 the pilot was instructed to turn left heading 320 and intercept the PBI 327 radial. At 1117 the pilot called Miami Center stating that he was leaving 4,500 feet for 5,000 feet. At 1140 Miami Center advised the pilot several times that radar contact was lost, but there was no response, and there was no further contact with the pilot.

A review of available weather data showed that a frontal boundary was situated in the vicinity of the accident location. The Melbourne Doppler radar showed that a moderate rain shower was near the accident location at the accident time. In addition, the radar's Velocity Azimuth Display wind profiles around the accident time indicated that the wind below 3,000 feet was from the north-northeast and the wind at 5,000 feet was from the south at 15-20 knots. Pilot reports showed that Instrument meteorological conditions were present in the accident area.


The commercial pilot held ratings in single and multiengine instrument airplanes. The pilot's most recent first class medical certificate was issued on August 15, 2001, with no limitations or waivers, and he reported having 1,400 hours total civilian hours. The pilot's personal log book was not recovered.

The Piper PA-28-180, N7345W, S/N 28-1222, was a four seat, single engine airplane, and was registered to a private individual in Oviedo, Florida. The airplane's maintenance records were not recovered.


Surface weather observation from Vero Beach Municipal Airport, Florida, with a field elevation of 24 feet mean sea level, augmented Automated Surface Observations System, located about 084 degrees at 18 nautical miles from the accident location, reported at 1144, wind 240 degrees at 12 knots; visibility 2 statute miles, with moderate rain mist, sky condition, scattered 900, broken 2,400 feet, overcast 3,500 feet, temperature 20 degrees Celsius, dew point 19 degrees Celsius, altimeter setting 29.77 inches of mercury.

Surface weather observation from Melbourne International Airport, Florida, with a field elevation of 33 feet msl, augmented ASOS, located about 011 degrees at 30 nautical miles from the accident location, reported at 1133, wind 330 degrees at 7 knots, visibility 1 3/4 miles, present weather heavy rain mist, sky condition overcast 500 feet, temperature 17 degrees Celsius, dew point 17 degrees Celsius, altimeter setting 29.80 inches of mercury, remarks ceiling 400 feet variable 1,000 feet.

Surface weather observation from Fort Pierce St. Lucie County International Airport, Florida, with a field elevation of 23 feet mean sea level, augmented Automated Surface Observations System, located about 110 degrees at 22 nautical miles from the accident location, reported at 1133, wind 240 degrees at 8 knots; visibility 2 statute miles, with light rain mist, sky condition, few 600 feet, broken 2,900 feet, overcast 4,800 feet, temperature 20 degrees Celsius, dew point 19 degrees Celsius, altimeter setting 29.78 inches of mercury.

The National Weather Service (NWS) Surface Analysis chart for 1000 showed a low pressure center near Fort Myers, Florida. The chart showed that a warm front extended northeastward from the low across Florida north of Lake Okeechobee to near Vero Beach and then continued off the coast into the southwestern Atlantic Ocean.

The NWS Surface Analysis chart for 1300 showed that the center of low pressure had reformed just off the eastern coast of Florida. A cold front stretched from the low southward along the Florida coastline.

The NWS 850 millibar Analysis chart (approximately 5,000 feet) for 0700 showed a center of low pressure near Tampa, Florida, with a sharp trough of low pressure southwestward to the western Caribbean Ocean. Station plots on the chart showed southwesterly winds at around 30 knots over southern Florida. Also, the chart showed a light easterly wind at 4,000 feet near Melbourne, Florida, and east-northeasterly winds at about 15 knots near Jacksonville, Florida.

The NWS 850 millibar Analysis chart for 1900 indicated that the center of low pressure had reformed over the southwestern Atlantic Ocean . A sharp trough of low pressure extended southwestward over southern Florida.


Examination of the wreckage on-scene, found the cockpit, engine, and a small portion of the aft empennage in a confined area with the cockpit and instruments fire damaged. The wings, vertical stabilizer, horizontal stabilator, and pieces of the empennage were found scattered within 500 feet of the cockpit area. The right aileron and flap, were not located.

Airplane components were scattered over approximately 1/8 of a mile. (There was a post-impact fire that was confined to the lower and forward cockpit area only.) The origin and fire source was undetermined.

Examination of the left wing found it separated from the fuselage 22 inches inboard of the main spar box. The fracture surfaces were clean and granular. The main spar box fractured in an upward direction. There was 27 inches of upper and lower leading edge skin that separated forward of the main spar starting at the wing root. There were several blue paint transfers noted on the upper wing skin. The forward spar attachment was pulled and separated from the fuselage and the nut and bolt attachment remained intact. The main gear remained attached with no evidence of damage. The fuel tank was crushed aft on the leading edge and was void of fuel. The fuel cap was separated and not recovered. The outboard 90 inches of wing was separated from the fuel tank and was bent downward 45 degrees. The wing tip remained attached however the trailing edge was separated by the aileron balance weight. The aileron remained attached to its hinges but was buckled about 24 inches inboard from the tip. Continuity was established from the aileron bell crank to the wing root area. The flap was attached to all three hinges. The flap connecting rod was separated from the flap eyebolt. The aft spar was separated from the fuselage and the attach nut and bolt was present. The wing remained attached to the main spar box by the 16 nuts and bolts.

Examination of the right wing found it separated from the fuselage 22 inches inboard of the main spar box. The right wing was also separated outboard of the fuel tank near the splice area. The forward spar attachment nut and bolt was separated and pulled out of the wing spar attachment. The fuel tank was crushed aft along the leading edge and bent downward into a "V" shape. The fuel tank was breached along the upper and lower outboard rivet line and the tank was found void of fuel. The fuel tank cap was separated and not located. The right main gear was separated at the lower portion of the trunnion. The outboard 93 inches of the right wing separated at the manufacturer splice, upward and aft. A 41 inch piece of upper outboard wing skin, aft of the main spar, was torn and separated. There was 24 inches of the trailing edge wing tip that was separated. The aileron was separated from the wing and only 28 inches of the aileron was located. The outboard aileron hinge and pin remained attached to the wing and was deformed and bent upward. There was a 63 inch long and 24 inch wide piece of aft spar and lower wing skin that was separated about 45 inches inboard of the wing tip. Blue paint smears were evident on the bottom side of the skin. The aileron bell crank was separated from the wing, but remained attached to a 21 inch piece of bottom wing skin. The aileron control cables were attached to the aileron bell crank and the cables were separated. There was 27 inches of inboard wing skin attached to the aft spar attachment and a 29 inch piece of flap attached to the inboard flap hinge. The flap connecting rod was separated at the fuselage eyebolt. The right wing main spar had a semi circular indentation located about 72 inches outboard of the wing root. The indentation was pushed forward approximately 4 1/2 inches. Black mud was impacted throughout this area. This portion of the main spar was found imbedded in the ground about 29 inches.

Examination of the empennage found the vertical stabilizer separated from the tail cone and its leading edge was crushed to the left starting from the root and upwards for 27 inches. The rudder remained attached to the upper hinge only. The right side of the rudder was crushed inboard starting 27 inches up from the bottom. There was a triangular shaped tear on the right side of the rudder approximately 10 inches up from the bottom. The rudder balance weight and the rotating beacon remained attached to the top of the rudder and the vertical stabilizer. The rudder torque tube was bent 45 degrees to the right and the control cables were attached. There was no damage to the left or right rudder control stops. Continuity was established from the rudder bell crank and forward to the rudder pedal bar assembly. The stinger was separated from the rear bulkhead and fragmented. The stabilator was separated into two pieces. The left side of the stabilator and, forward spar was separated in the forward direction. The aft spar was bent aft. The anti servo trim tab remained attached to its hinges and jammed in the up position. The stabilator main spar box remained attached to the rear bulkhead. There was no damage to the upper or lower stabilator control stops. Continuity was established between the stabilator balance weight and the tee bar assembly. The anti servo trim tab jackscrew drum was separated and no trim setting was obtainable. The right side of the stabilator separated up and to the aft. There was a tear in the upper skin 33 inches along the aft spar starting at the root. The inboard leading edge was bent into a "V", upward and aft, to the rivet line. The right side of the tail cone was crushed inboard about 24 inches forward of the aft bulkhead.

Examination of the fuselage found it separated into five main pieces and fragmented into numerous smaller segments. The cabin roof was separated at the wind screen posts and aft for 47 inches. The cabin door remained attached to one of its two hinges and was located with the main wreckage. The lower, forward cockpit floor, rear baggage floor, and cabin floor, remained attached and were also located along with the main wreckage. There was a 48 inch long and 21 inch wide section of the right side of the fuselage and tail cone that was separated and found near the main wreckage. This section included to the rear baggage door and its hinges. The left side of the fuselage, aft of the pilot window, was separated. There were numerous wrinkles, dents and blue and red paint transfers located near the forward section of the fuselage skin. The last main piece was a section that separated form the left side of the fuselage, below the pilot's window. This section was 34 inches long and 30 inches wide. Fire damage was evident near the upper forward 1/3 of this section. The firewall remained attached to the lower forward cockpit floor. The firewall was crushed aft and to the right and a 10-inch tear was observed into this area. The inboard or aft side of the firewall was exposed to an extensive post impact fire, which destroyed all radios, instruments, pilot and co-pilot seats, seat foam and covers and the right forward cockpit floor. The nose gear remained attached to the engine mount. The seat belt webbing for the pilot and co-pilot seat belts were destroyed by fire. The seat belt buckles were not located.

The engine cowlings were separated into 6 pieces that were wrinkled and crushed. Examination of the engine found that the crankshaft and valve train continuity could not be verified due to the severe impact damage to the engine. The upper front left of the engine crankcase was separated from the engine. The oil sump was breached, the induction system and carburetor were separated. The fuel inlet screen and oil suction screen wren found to be clear of contaminants. The alternator was separated and destroyed. The left and right magnetos were found separated from the engine and when tested would not furnish spark. The engine driven fuel pump was crushed. The exhaust system was crushed. The vacuum pump was disassembled and no defects were noted. No fuel was found during the inspection of the engine. Both propeller blades displayed aft bending at mid-blade, with leading edge polishing.


On February 25, 2002, a post mortem examination of the commercial pilot and passenger was conducted by the Medical Examiner Department - District 19, St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River, and Okeechobee Counties, Florida. The cause of death for both occupants was listed as multiple blunt force trauma. On March 25, 2002, a Toxicology examination of the pilot was conducted by the FAA Toxicology Research Laboratory. The examination revealed no Ethanol detected in Brain or muscle, and no drugs detected in the liver.


The wreckage was released to the owners insurance representative, on February 27, 2002.

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