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On December 15, 2002, between 1305 and 2200 Hawaiian standard time (all times referenced herein are HST), a Piper PA-34-200T, N101YK, failed to arrive at the flight's intended destination of Majuro Island (KMJ), located in the Marshall Islands, South Pacific Ocean. The commercial pilot/owner, the sole occupant, was operating the airplane as a ferry flight under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 91. The pilot is presumed to have sustained fatal injuries, and the airplane is presumed to be destroyed. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan had been filed. The flight originated from the Honolulu International Airport (HNL), Honolulu, Hawaii, at 0652, and was en route to Majuro Island for a fuel stop. The flight's final destination was Tinian Island located in the Northern Mariana Islands.
Interviews with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspectors, other pilots, and the previous airplane owner revealed the following information.
The airplane flew from California to Hawaii a few weeks prior to the aforementioned flight. The accident pilot then bought the airplane. He intended on flying the airplane to Tinian Island, where he planned on using the airplane to start an air charter business.
The pilot filed the following flight plan with HNL Flight Service Station:
HNL direct CHOKO R584 MOKIE direct APOLO direct MAZZA direct KMJ
The pilot filed the trip with an en route airspeed of 170 knots, an altitude of 10,000 feet mean sea level (msl), and an estimated time en route of 12 hours 30 minutes. According to the pilot's flight endurance calculations, the airplane would have enough fuel to last until 2200.
According to the AIRINC transcripts (Aeronautical Radio, Inc., is a communications center that coordinates flight position reports and air traffic control clearances via high frequency [HF] radio communications), the pilot contacted AIRINC on the evening of the 14th at 1900, requesting frequency information for the next morning's flight. At 0620, on the morning of the 15th, the pilot contacted AIRINC again and confirmed the monitoring frequency.
Review of HNL's air traffic control transmission summary revealed that the pilot contacted HNL ground control and requested an IFR clearance to Majuro at 0625. Ground control cleared the pilot to taxi to runway 8R; however, while taxiing out, the pilot missed a turn and requested a progressive taxi. At 0652, HNL tower cleared N101YK for takeoff. After takeoff, N101YK was cleared to 10,000 feet and direct to CHOKO. Between 0721 and 0830, Honolulu's air traffic control facility remained in contact with N101YK, as the pilot attempted to contact AIRINC via the HF radio. At 0830, N101YK cancelled his IFR flight plan and descended to 5,500 feet because of his inability to use the HF radio.
According to AIRINC communication transcripts, the pilot attempted to contact AIRINC at 1120; however, the pilot was having difficulty transmitting via his HF radio. He was able to receive communications; however, his transmissions were "totally distorted." The pilot was able to report his position by transmitting to another aircraft, which in turn relayed the information to AIRINC. According to the relay, N101YK's position was over Johnston Atoll at 5,500 feet at 1240. The pilot estimated his arrival over 15 degrees 30 minutes north and 172 degrees 30 minutes west, at 1338. At 1250, N101YK requested via relay to climb to 10,000 feet. At 1258, N101YK was cleared to climb to 10,000 feet with instructions to report his level off. The pilot reported level at 10,000 feet (via relay), at 1305. There were no additional communications with N101YK.
When the airplane did not arrive at its destination, the United States Coast Guard initiated a search. According to the Coast Guard, they initiated airborne searches on the morning of December 16, 2002, and called them off on December 20, 2002. The Coast Guard conducted 40 hours of search flights along 128,000 square miles of Pacific Ocean along the airplane's intended route of flight. They did not see wreckage or a debris field.
The pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with ratings in single engine, multiengine, and instrument airplanes. He obtained a first-class medical certificate on November 21, 2001, with no limitations. According to the last medical application, the pilot accumulated a total of 1,700 hours of flight time. According to persons, who met with the pilot prior to the flight, he had never flown a ferry flight over the ocean before.
The pilot/owner had the 1977 airplane appraised on November 21, 2002, once it arrived in Honolulu from the mainland. According to the appraisal sheet, the airplane had accumulated a total of 3,528.93 hours of flight time. Its last annual inspection took place on September 18, 2002, at a total time of 3,494.82 hours. The airplane was equipped with two counter-rotating Teledyne Continental TSIO-360-EB1B engines. Both engines accumulated a total of 3,528.93 hours, and 291.74 hours since their last overhaul. The propellers had been overhauled along with the engines, and had also accumulated a total of 291.74 hours since their last overhaul.
The white and blue twin engine airplane utilized the same fuel system that was used for the flight from the mainland U.S. to Hawaii. The fuel system was installed via the use of a supplemental type certificate (STC), and added approximately 250 gallons of aviation gasoline to the airplane. The added fuel system, combined with the original aircraft fuel system (123 gallons), allowed for a total of 373 gallons of fuel. According to the pilot's flight plan, this would amount to 15 hours of endurance.
The added fuel system consisted of three aluminum rectangular fuel tanks that incorporated internal baffles. According to the STC, the operator removed all of the seats, and strapped the fuel tanks in their place, both longitudinally and laterally, with two straps each, which tied into the seat tracks. The fuel tanks were grounded to the airframe, and were vented to the atmosphere. The additional fuel system tied into the aircraft's original fuel system between the aircraft fuel selector valves and the fuel filters. The fuel tank selection system was between the pilot's seat and the right front fuel tank.
According to the STC (attachment #1), the pilot was to:
"1. Take off on the aircraft mains tanks and fly approx. two hours.
2. Select desired ferry fuel tank 'ON'.
3. Select right and left ferry valves 'ON' and let engines stabilize (use boost pump as required.).
4. Select aircraft selectors 'OFF'.
5. Monitor fuel quantity gauges and rotate systems as required.
6. To return to aircraft system, reverse procedures."
According to Special Flight Permit Operating Limitations issued by the FAA Honolulu Flight Standards District Office, the use of the airplanes's autopilot system was prohibited, and the "speeds shall not exceed 122 knots" while the airplane was in an overweight condition.
The HF radio was also installed via the use of an STC dated December 11, 2002. A person showed the pilot how to use the Kenwood TS 440S Digital 250-watt HF radio on three separate occasions. According to this person, the pilot kept forgetting steps and making mistakes. The person finally had the pilot write down the steps on a piece of paper. He added that he observed the HF radio frequencies to be used on the pilot's aerial charts.
In addition, an Apollo SL50 global positioning system (GPS) receiver was on the accident airplane in accordance with an STC. The pilot also obtained a hand-held GPS receiver as a backup to the panel mounted Apollo unit.
The National Transportation Safety Board conducted a weather study utilizing National Weather Service (NWS) and National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) information. The NWS Pacific Surface Analysis chart issued for 1400, on December 16, 2002, defined the synoptic situation. The chart depicted a low pressure system with a central pressure of 1017 millibars (mb) at an approximate latitude and longitude of 26 degrees north and 178 degrees west, respectively. A stationary front extended east and west from this low and turned into a cold front north of the Hawaiian Islands. This low pressure center and front were north of the last known position of N101YK. There were no other large scale tropical or extratropical disturbances depicted in the vicinity of Johnston Atoll or the next position southwest.
The NWS 850-mb Constant Pressure Chart for the northern hemisphere for the Pacific Ocean approximates observed conditions at approximately the 5,000-foot level. The chart depicted a high pressure system in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands with no closed contour lines. There were no low pressure systems or defined troughs of low pressure depicted over the route. The station models depicted on the chart displayed satellite observed winds at 3,000 and 4,000 feet from the east at 10 to 15 knots based on derived cloud motions immediately north of the last reported position.
Review of the meteorological aerodrome reports (METARs) for Johnston Atoll Island (PJON) at 0650 and 1750, revealed visual flight rule (VFR) conditions existed with 10-statute miles visibility and a few clouds at 1,800 and 3,500 feet, and broken clouds at 4,000 feet. METAR reports for Majuro International Airport revealed VFR weather conditions existed at 1152, 1942, and 1958.
The closest upper air sounding or rawinsonde observation (RAOB) was from the Marshall Islands (PKMJ). The 1400 observation indicated a typical tropical environment with a moist low-level environment with relative humidity greater than 80 percent from the surface to approximately 10,000 feet. The approximate base of the clouds was 1,000 feet, which also coincided with the approximate base of convective clouds. The freezing level was identified at 16,400 feet, and the maximum height of convective cloud development was depicted at 48,000 feet. The lifted index (a common measure of atmospheric instability) was -2.4 and indicted an unstable atmosphere supporting cumulus to cumulonimbus cloud development. The K-index (the measure of thunderstorm potential) was 33.3, which continued to indicate favorable conditions for scattered airmass type thunderstorm development with an approximate 60 to 80 percent probability of occurrence.
The sounding's wind profile indicated a surface wind from the northeast at 8 knots and backing to the north-northwest through 12,000 feet. A low-level wind maximum was identified at 1,000 feet with wind from 025 degrees at 20 knots with wind speeds decreasing with altitude through 5,000 feet. The wind at 5,000 feet was depicted from 010 degrees at 7 knots, with a temperature of 17.0 degrees Celsius.
Examination of the Geostationary Operations Environmental Satellite number 10 (GOES-10) between 1300 and 1350, revealed that the only cumulonimbus clouds identified in the vicinity of PJON at the time of pilot's last transmission were approximately 160 miles south and were not impacting the route of flight. The GOES-10 visible image at 1330, depicted low cumulus to stratocumulus clouds extending between PJON and the position near the next reporting point. Short bands of towering cumulus clouds are identified along the route of flight.
The NWS had no International SIGMETs (Significant Meteorological Information) valid for the Central and Eastern Pacific Ocean during the period from 0800 and 1400.
The Terminal Aerodrome Forecast (TAF) for PJON between 0800 on the 15th and 0800 on the 16th, called for the wind from 050 degrees at 15 knots; visibility better than 6 miles; rain showers in the vicinity; scattered clouds at 1,500 feet, ceiling broken at 4,000 feet, with a temporary condition between 0900 at 1300 of visibility 5 miles in moderate rain showers and a ceiling broken at 1,500 feet.
The planned destination forecast for the Marshall Islands (PKMJ) between 1200 on the 15th and 0800 on the 16th was wind from 030 degrees at 15 knots; visibility better than 6 miles; a few clouds at 1,500 feet, scattered clouds at 5,000 feet, ceiling broken at 15,000 feet. There was a probability of 30 percent from 0200 through 0800, for visibility 4 miles in moderate rain showers with scattered clouds at 1,500 feet in towering cumulonimbus clouds, ceiling broken at 3,000 feet.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
There was no evidence of airplane wreckage.
According to the flight plan information, the pilot had a 4-person covered raft and a lifejacket, both of which were equipped with lights. In addition, the pilot had maritime survival equipment on board. According to personnel located at the HNL airport, the pilot positioned the life raft between the two rear fuel tanks. He placed the opened life vest on top of the life raft. Forward of the fuel selector manifold, the pilot positioned an Electronic Positioning Radio Beacon (EPRB).
Review of photographs, taken a few days prior to departure, revealed that the airplane's seats had been removed and rectangular aluminum fuel tanks positioned in their place. A large aluminum tank was in the right front seat area between the pilot's seat and the exit door. In addition, the HF radio was positioned on top of a wooden board, which was on top of the right front fuel tank. The tank was strapped down to the seat rails (according to the fuel tank STC). The photographs revealed that the front right aluminum tank blocked the entire width of the main entry/exit door, and extended from the floor up past the midpoint of the entry/exit way height. It is not certain how easily the pilot could have exited the airplane with the survival gear and raft in the event he had to ditch the airplane. The left rear door was not accessible.
The Aeronautical Information Manual's section 5-1-9 Flights Outside the U.S. and U.S. Territories, indicates "When conducting flights, particularly extended flights, outside the U.S. and its territories, full account should be taken of the amount and quality of air navigation services available in the airspace to be traversed. Every effort should be made to secure information on the location and range of navigational aids, availability of communications, and meteorological services, the provision of air traffic services, including alerting service, and the existence of search and rescue services."