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On November 27, 2002, at 1812 eastern standard time, a Piper PA-32RT-300, N31554, sustained substantial damage when it impacted rising terrain while approaching the Mercer County Airport (BLF), Bluefield, West Virginia. The certificated commercial pilot and the passenger were fatally injured. Night visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and an instrument flight rules flight plan was filed for the personal flight which originated at the Leesburg Airport (LEE), Leesburg, Florida, about 1415. The flight was conducted under 14 CFR Part 91.
According to information provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the pilot received a weather briefing and filed two IFR flight plans, with the Leesburg Flight Service Station prior to his departure from Leesburg. One flight plan was filed from Leesburg to the Union County Airport (35A), Union, South Carolina, and the second flight plan was filed from Union to Bluefield. While en route to Union, the pilot requested, and was cleared, to overfly Union and continue on to Bluefield.
According to Air Traffic Control (ATC) transcripts, at 1747, the pilot requested a course reversal to proceed to Ashe County Airport (GEV), Jefferson, North Carolina, because he did not have the instrument procedures with him for West Virginia. The pilot then asked the controller, "how low can you get me on radar?" The controller responded, "five five four we can get you down to six thousand feet for bluefield and its uh v-f-r conditions up there." The pilot stated that he would proceed to Bluefield and try to make a visual approach. If a visual approach was not possible, he would go to Ashe County.
At 1758, the pilot requested a frequency change to check the weather information at Bluefield. When the pilot returned on frequency with the controller, the controller asked the pilot to report his altitude. The pilot responded that he was at 6,100 feet, descending to 6,000 feet. The controller stated, "i'm showing you out of fifty one hundred and your assigned altitude was six." The pilot stated that he would climb back to 6,000 feet. The controller suggested that the pilot "climb and maintain five thousand eight hundred that's the minimum i-f-r altitude i have."
At 1801, the controller asked the pilot if he thought he would be able to "get in on a visual." The pilot responded, "ah i'll see what i have between here and there." About one minute later, the pilot reported that he had visual contact with the ground, and cancelled his IFR flight plan.
A radar target, which was later correlated to be N31554, approached the Bluefield area on a track heading of 360 degrees, at an altitude of 5,600 feet. The airplane continued on that track for 3 minutes, while climbing to 6,000 feet and then descending to 5,800 feet. During the next 90 seconds, the airplane made a gradual 360-degree descending left turn. The airplane briefly leveled off at an altitude of 4,700 feet, on a track of 360 degrees, before radar contact was lost. The last radar return was observed at 1804.
The accident occurred during the hours of night, at 37 degrees, 09 minutes north latitude, 081 degrees, 11 minutes west longitude.
The pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single engine land and instrument airplane. His most recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) third class medical certificate was issued on January 28, 2002, at which time he reported 2,100 hours of total flight experience.
The pilot's logbook was located in the wreckage. The logbook was identified as "logbook number 4" and entries were recorded from March 20, 2000 to August 14, 2002. Examination of the entries revealed that the pilot recorded 2,358 hours of total flight experience, 263 hours of which were in actual instrument conditions, and 103 hours of which were at night. The last flight recorded in the logbook was a 6.0 cross-country flight, dated August 14, 2002, with "Midway -O8A - LEE" written in remarks section. The last instrument flight was recorded as a 3.0 hour local (Leesburg) instrument flight, dated July 15, 2002.
A review of aircraft and engine logbooks did not reveal any anomalies. The airplane's most recent annual inspection was performed on August 1, 2002.
Examination of fuel records at the Leesburg Airport revealed the airplane was "topped off" with 49.2 gallons of aviation fuel on November 27, 2002, at 1210.
The elevation at Bluefield Airport was 2,857 feet. Weather reported at Bluefield, at 1752, included calm winds, 10 miles visibility, few clouds at 1,900 feet, temperature 24 degrees Fahrenheit, dew point 17 degrees Fahrenheit, and barometric pressure 30.18 inches Hg. A "special" METAR report was issued at 1812, which included broken clouds at 1,900 feet.
The wreckage was located by the Civil Air Patrol on November 28, 2002, at 1000, about 9 miles south of the Bluefield Airport. It was in a wooded area on Round Mountain, at an elevation of 3,896 feet.
The wreckage was located at 37 degrees, 09 minutes north latitude, 81 degrees, 11 minutes west longitude. A wreckage path began with a tree strike at a height of 30 feet, on a 50-foot tall tree. The wreckage path continued on a heading of 360 degrees, for 94 feet, over terrain which sloped upward about 20 degrees. The peak of the mountain beyond the wreckage path rose to 3,900 feet.
All flight control surfaces were accounted for at the accident scene. Located along the wreckage path were both the right and left wingtips, portions of the right horizontal stabilizer, the right flap, and the right main landing gear. Also located along the wreckage path were several branches and sections of trees, of varying diameters, cut at 45-degree angles.
Both wings were separated from the fuselage at their wing roots and located adjacent to each other, along the wreckage path, just prior to the main wreckage. A 1-foot inboard section of the left wing displayed a circular concave impact which was displaced aft, from the leading edge to the main spar. The left aileron was attached to the wing, and the flap was attached at its inboard hinge. The left fuel tank cap was secured, and visual examination of the fuel tank revealed a trace amount of aviation fuel. It was also noted that the fuel line from the fuel tank was leaking fuel. The left main landing gear was in the retracted position.
The right wing also displayed a concave impact at its wing root. The right aileron was attached at its inboard hinge and the right flap had separated from the wing. The right fuel cap was secured, and approximately 8 gallons of aviation fuel were drained from the fuel tank.
The main wreckage came to rest in a partially inverted, right bank attitude, with the nose of the airplane at the base of one tree and the empennage section suspended upward, resting on another tree. The main wreckage consisted of the engine, cockpit area, fuselage and empennage. The fuselage and empennage remained intact, and the rudder remained attached to the vertical stabilizer. The left side of the horizontal stabilizer was intact, and impact damage was noted to the right side which displaced the leading edge aft. The nose wheel landing gear was in the retracted position.
Examination of the instrument panel revealed that the altimeter indicated 4,200 feet, with a Kohlsman window setting of 30.14 inches Hg. The airspeed indicator displayed "0" knots, the attitude indicator displayed a 45-degree right bank turn, and a 15-degree pitch-up attitude.
Flight control continuity was established from the cockpit to all control surfaces, with the ends of the cables "broomstrawed" at the wing breaks.
The engine remained attached to the main fuselage and the propeller remained attached to the engine. Examination of both propeller blades revealed s-bending and chordwise scratching.
The engine was rotated by hand at the propeller flange, and thumb compression was obtained on all cylinders. Valve train continuity was also established to the rear accessory drive. Fuel was observed at the fuel distributor unit, the fuel pump, and all fuel nozzles.
The dual magneto was removed from the engine, and when rotated by hand, produced spark at all towers.
Examination of all of the top spark plugs revealed the electrodes were intact and medium gray in color. Borescope examination of the cylinders and pistons revealed no abnormalities.
Examination of the vacuum pump revealed the drive coupling was intact, and no abnormalities were noted with the rotor or internal vanes.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
An autopsy was performed on the pilot by personnel of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Roanoke, Virginia.
Toxicological testing was conducted on the pilot at the FAA Toxicology Accident Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
The airplane was released to a representative of the owner's insurance company on December 2, 2002.