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On March 21, 2004, about 2050 eastern standard time, a Piper PA-32R-301, N8173U, was destroyed when it impacted mountainous terrain, while in cruise flight near Harlan, Kentucky. The certificated private pilot and five passengers were fatally injured. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed near the accident site, for the flight that departed Darlington County Jetport (UDG), Darlington, South Carolina; destined for Blue Grass Airport (LEX), Lexington, Kentucky. No flight plan was filed for the personal flight conducted under 14 CFR Part 91.
The pilot received a weather briefing from the Anderson, South Carolina Flight Service Station (FSS), and departed UDG at 1901. Review of air traffic control (ATC) communications and radar data revealed that the flight proceeded uneventfully on a northwesterly heading from UDG, to the Tri-Cities Regional Airport (TRI) airspace. The pilot contacted Tri-Cities Approach Control, requested transition through the airspace, and reported descending from 10,000 feet to 4,500 feet. The controller acknowledged the transmission, assigned a transponder code, and provided flight following services through the airspace. After transitioning through the airspace, ATC terminated services about 2041. The pilot acknowledged the cancellation of services and change in transponder code.
The last radar target return was recorded at 2048:43, with no altitude recorded. However, an altitude of 4,500 feet was recorded on the previous radar target return, at 2148:24. The position of the last target return was approximately 6 miles southeast of the accident site.
The accident occurred during the hours of night; located about 36 degrees, 53.61 minutes north latitude, and 83 degrees, 04.86 minutes west longitude. A search was initiated when the flight did not land at LEX or the pilot's home airport, Central Regional Illinois Airport (BMI), Bloomington, Illinois. The wreckage was located near the peak of Little Black Mountain on March 24, 2004, about 1600.
The pilot held a private pilot certificate, with a rating for airplane single engine land. The pilot was not instrument rated.
According to the operator of the airplane, the pilot and aircraft logbooks were on board the airplane at the time of the accident, and believed to be destroyed. The operator reported that the pilot had accumulated approximately 425 hours of total flight time; of which, about 59 hours were in the same make and model as the accident airplane.
According to a maintenance facility work order, the airplane's most recent annual inspection was performed on July 23, 2003. At that time, the airplane had accumulated 3,439.4 hours of operation.
Review of a recording from the Anderson FSS revealed that the pilot telephoned the FSS about 1845. He received a standard weather briefing for a visual flight rules (VFR) flight from UDG to BMI, with a proposed departure time of approximately 1915. The pilot did not specify a cruising altitude, but asked for winds at 6,000 feet and 9,000 feet.
The briefing including an icing advisory for occasional moderate rime or mixed ice in clouds and precipitation below 7,000 feet msl; over Kentucky and Indiana.
The briefing also included information about cloud cover north and west of the Appalachian Mountains. The cloud cover was described as solid broken to overcast with bases between 3,000 to 4,000 feet msl, and tops at 6,000 feet msl.
TRI was located about 40 miles southeast of the accident site. The reported weather at TRI, at 2053 was: wind 310 degrees at 10 knots; visibility 10 miles; few clouds at 4,700 feet agl; temperature 32 degrees F; dew point 20 degrees F; altimeter 30.24 inches Hg. However, a Kentucky State Trooper observed heavy snowfall in the Harlan County area at the time of the accident, with possible accumulation of 1 inch in the mountainous areas. Additionally, the NEXRAD Weather Radar Imagery report for 2100 revealed light to medium intensity echoes for southeastern Kentucky.
The wreckage was examined at the accident site on March 25, 2004, and all major components of the airplane were accounted for at the scene. The main wreckage was resting about 10 feet upslope of the main impact point, and 300 feet below the peak, on the southeast side of the mountain. The wreckage was oriented about a 010-degree heading, approximately 3,050 feet msl. A debris path was observed, that initiated with several severed trees. The trees were severed about the same height, oriented about a 340-degree heading to the main impact point.
The right wingtip was located about 10 feet from the beginning of the debris path, and portions of the outboard right wing were situated about 10 feet beyond the right wingtip. The propeller was located about 10 feet beyond the right wing, near a large rock that exhibited scraping consistent with impact forces. The left wing was resting to the left of the propeller.
The cockpit, and a large section of fuselage, was destroyed by fire. The inboard portion of the right wing and the empennage were folded over the fuselage. The empennage was canted to the right, and the vertical and horizontal stabilators remained attached. Flight control continuity was established from the vertical stabilator, the horizontal stabilator, and the horizontal stabilator trim to the mid-cabin area. A jackscrew measurement of the stabilator trim corresponded to an approximate full nose down position; however, the trim position prior to impact could not be determined.
The right main landing gear was found retracted into the right wing, the nose gear was separated from the airplane, and left main landing gear had separated from the left wing. The inboard portion of the right flap remained attached to the right wing, and was near the retracted position. The flap handle was also found in the flap-retracted position. The right wing bellcrank remained inside the wing with two aileron cables attached. Both cables were separated and broom-strawed, consistent with overstress.
The left wing was fragmented into several pieces and separated from the fuselage. The left aileron was found detached from the wing, and separated into two sections. The left flap was also detached from the left wing. The left aileron bellcrank was found separated from the left wing, and one aileron cable remained attached to the bellcrank.
All three propeller blades exhibited s-bending and leading edge gouging. The propeller blade tips had separated from two of the propeller blades. One of the tips was recovered and was curled; the other tip was not recovered.
The engine exhibited impact and fire damage, but remained attached to the firewall. The propeller flange was bent right, and the crankshaft was unable to be rotated by hand. A portion of the number two cylinder had separated from the engine, and was found about 20 feet prior to the main wreckage, along the debris path. The front portion of the engine case had cracked, and the number one cylinder valve cover separated from the engine. The magnetos and rear accessory section of the engine were destroyed by fire. The oil suction screen, oil filter, fuel servo, and fuel pump were destroyed. The fuel inlet screen was recovered in soot, and was charred. The fuel manifold was opened; no fuel was present and the diaphragm remained intact. The spark plugs were removed from the engine for inspection. All electrodes were intact and light gray in color; except for the number two bottom spark plug electrode, which was destroyed.
MEDICAL AND PAHTOLOGICAL INFORMATION
An autopsy was performed on the pilot by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Frankfort, Kentucky.
Toxicological testing was conducted on the pilot at the FAA Toxicology Accident Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
The wreckage was released to a representative of the owner's insurance company on March 25, 2004.