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On January 7, 2004, at 1130 eastern standard time, a Piper PA-28-151, N1558X, was substantially damaged when it impacted trees during a precautionary landing after departure from the Danbury Municipal Airport (DXR), Danbury, Connecticut. The certified flight instructor was seriously injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plan was filed for the maintenance test flight conducted under 14 CFR Part 91.
According to the pilot, on the morning of the accident, he preheated the airplane, "topped off" the fuel, and performed a preflight inspection. During the inspection he observed no abnormalities with the airplane.
The pilot then started the airplane, and taxied to runway 26. Prior to his departure, he performed a run-up inspection, checking the engine gauges during a range of power settings from 2,000 RPM, to full power. He also checked the carburetor heat and noted no abnormalities.
The pilot taxied onto runway 26, and initiated a takeoff with full power. He stated that everything appeared normal during the takeoff roll, and initial climb. As the airplane approached the departure end of the runway, the pilot heard a "pop," the airplane began to shudder, and he felt a "decrease in aircraft performance." He stated that the propeller slowed, and he noticed a decrease in RPMs (both audibly and visually).
The pilot pitched the airplane for "best glide" and cycled the throttle and mixture controls, in an attempt to evaluate the problem. At the same time, the [Air Traffic] Controllers asked, "is everything ok?" The pilot replied that he needed to "turn back."
The pilot reported that the airplane was at an altitude of about 400 feet, when he initiated a turn into the wind, attempting to maintain the airplane's "best glide" speed. As he maneuvered the airplane back toward the runway, he realized he wouldn't be able to make it, and at the same time, the airplane impacted a tree. The pilot momentarily lost consciousness; however, he remembered forcing the door open and exiting the airplane as it was on fire.
The pilot described the "reduction in power," as a sound similar to a run-up being performed on one "severely fouled magneto." He stated the only abnormal indication of the power loss was the decrease in RPMs. He stated all other engine gauges appeared normal. Additionally, he never observed any indication of smoke or fire coming from the airplane.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Traffic Controllers were interviewed by FAA inspectors after the accident. According to the inspectors, the controllers observed the accident airplane perform a "normal" run-up inspection and takeoff from runway 26. About 8 seconds after the airplane rotated, at an altitude of about 100 feet, the controllers observed black smoke coming from the left side of the airplane. The controllers informed the pilot of the smoke, and asked him "if he had a problem?" The pilot responded that he "needed to turn back to the airport," and he was cleared for a left turn to land. The controllers then observed the airplane make a right turn, and descend into trees near the departure end of runway 26.
A witness, who was also a pilot, observed the airplane from his office which was elevated on a hilltop at the approach end of runway 26. He stated that he observed the accident airplane during its takeoff roll and as it reached an altitude of about 100 feet, over the departure end of runway 26, the nose of the airplane lowered and the airplane began to descend slightly. The witness then observed a thin trail of dark smoke trailing behind the airplane. He described the smoke as "about the same thickness as a smoke trail from a jet; not billowing out; and no flames were visible." The airplane then began a steep turn to the right, and the witness lost sight of it when it disappeared into the tree line, after approximately 270 degrees of turn.
Another witness who was also a pilot, was standing outside a fixed-based-operator (FBO) at the airport when he observed the accident airplane in its takeoff climb. He stated that his attention was drawn to the airplane because the engine "didn't sound right." He estimated the airplane was at an altitude of 400 feet midway down the runway, and was "very slow, not gaining altitude." As the airplane reached the departure end of runway 26, it began a descent and a black "puff of smoke" was observed coming from the airplane's exhaust, similar to a car backfiring. The airplane then entered a 45-degree bank to the right. After approximately 180-degrees of turn, the airplane "stalled," and the nose dropped straight down. The airplane's right wing then impacted a tree and folded back, and a post-crash fire ensued.
The pilot held a certified flight instructor certificate with ratings for airplane single and multiengine land and instrument airplane. His most recent FAA second class medical certificate was issued on June 12, 2003. As of that date, he reported 900 hours of total flight experience.
The accident airplane was individually owned, and leased to a flight school for its operation. According to the owner of the flight school, the airplane was rented on January 3, 2004, for a 0.6-hour flight. Upon completion of the flight, the renter completed a discrepancy sheet which stated:
"In landing pattern at 1,700 feet, when power reduced to approximately 1900-2000 RPM out of climb, aircraft rode very rough with noticeable shudder. This occurred on all touch-and-goes in the pattern. Performed fine otherwise."
On the following day, January 4, 2004, the owner of the airplane (also a student pilot) flew the airplane with a flight instructor for 1.6 hours. According to the owner, they remained in the traffic pattern performing 7 or 8 touch-and-goes, repetitively reducing and applying power. She stated that during the flight no engine roughness or other observable engine abnormalities were noted. She additionally stated that she also flew on January 2, 2004 with a flight instructor for 3.4 hours, during which she also experienced no abnormalities with the airplane.
The discrepancy sheet was not signed off by the flight instructor who flew the airplane on January 4, 2004. As a result, on January 5, 2004, the mechanic on-duty reviewed the sheet and determined he could not duplicate the problem on the ground. He suggested that the airplane be flown by a flight instructor to ascertain more information about the problem. The accident pilot/flight instructor agreed to fly the airplane on January 7, 2004.
Examination of the airplane logbooks revealed the engine was overhauled on January 27, 2000, at a tach time of 3199.8 hours. The last annual inspection was performed on September 13, 2003 at a tach time of 3266.19. According to a daily report printed by the operator, the tach time on the day of the accident was 3292.2.
Weather reported at Danbury, at 1153, included wind from 300 degrees at 13 knots, gusting to 20 knots, visibility 10 miles, an overcast cloud layer at 3,100 feet, temperature 19 degrees Fahrenheit, dew point 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and barometric pressure of 30.12 inches Mercury.
The initial impact point was the top of a tree approximately 80-feet tall. A second tree-impact was observed about 106 feet from the initial impact; the right wingtip was located at the base of this tree. The wreckage path extended another 90 feet to the main wreckage and was oriented on a heading of 115 degrees. The airplane came to rest inverted, partially submerged in a stream, on a heading of 280 degrees.
The engine and fuselage area were completely submerged under water. The left wing remained attached, and was resting on the surface of the water. The empennage section of the airplane was separated from the fuselage and came to rest upright, oriented in the opposite direction of the fuselage. The rudder remained attached to the vertical stabilizer; both sections sustained fire damage. The right wing was separated from the fuselage at the wing root, and came to rest behind the empennage section, along the wreckage path. A concave circular dent was observed on the outboard section of the leading edge of the wing.
Flight control continuity was confirmed from the cockpit to the flight control surfaces, and the flaps were observed in the retracted position.
The airplane was recovered from the stream and further examinations were performed on the engine and forward cockpit section. The instrument panel was severely damaged by fire; however, the throttle and mixture controls appeared to be in the full forward positions, and the primer was in the locked position.
The propeller remained attached to the engine and examination of its blades revealed chordwise scratching and slight S-bending.
The engine was removed from the firewall and rotated by hand at the propeller flange. During rotation, thumb compression was obtained on all cylinders and valve train continuity was confirmed to the rear accessory drive. Borescope examination of the cylinders revealed no abnormalities.
Examination of the spark plugs revealed their electrodes were intact and exhibited "normal" wear. Both magnetos were removed from the engine, and when rotated by hand, produced spark at all ignition leads.
The exhaust system was examined and no abnormalities were noted, with the exception of external fire damage. The carburetor also sustained fire damage and was further disassembled. Examination of the carburetor floats revealed they had melted and congealed to form a lining in the interior of the carburetor.
A review of FAA-H-8083-3, Airplane Flying Handbook, revealed:
"...If an actual engine failure should occur immediately after takeoff and before a safe maneuvering altitude is attained, it is usually inadvisable to attempt to turn back to the field from where the takeoff was made. Instead, it is safer to immediately establish the proper glide attitude, and select a field directly ahead or slightly to either side of the takeoff path."
The wreckage was released to a representative of the owner's insurance company on November 2, 2004.