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On December 24, 2005, at 2300 Pacific standard time, a Piper PA-28-180, N3953R, impacted terrain while in cruise flight near Hopland, California. The airplane was registered to and operated by Empire Aero Club of Sebastopol, California, under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 91 as a personal flight. The non-instrument rated private pilot, who was the sole occupant, was fatally injured, and the airplane was destroyed. Dark night marginal visual meteorological conditions to instrument meteorological conditions prevailed in the vicinity of the accident at the time of the accident. A flight plan was not filed for the cross-country flight, which is presumed to have originated from the Ukiah Airport, Ukiah, California, at an unknown time.
The pilot reserved the airplane from Empire Aero Club between 1500 and 2200 on December 24. According to one of the club members, the pilot was seen taxiing the airplane at Santa Rosa Airport, California, around 1500, what was described as marginal visual flight rule (VFR) conditions with limited visibility. Although the pilot's flight plan could not be confirmed, the club member believed that the pilot flew the airplane from Santa Rosa to Ukiah, and was returning when the accident occurred. The fueling credit card utilized by the Empire Aero Club did not have a charge on it for the day of the accident.
A witness reported that she and her husband were driving south on Highway 101 toward Cloverdale, California, on their way to a family member's residence on the evening of December 24, 2005. She was in the passenger seat of her car with her husband driving. The witness observed the red "taillight" or beacon of either an airplane or helicopter (which, she couldn't tell) flying in a southerly direction. She noted the weather as being very foggy, with the clouds extending low into the valley, just above the airplane; however, it wasn't raining.
They proceeded southbound and she continued to watch the airplane for several minutes. The aircraft did not appear to be in distress, and was flying low in foggy conditions. As the aircraft proceeded south, the "taillight" disappeared behind terrain. The witness assumed she would see the aircraft as her car rounded the corner, but she then observed an explosion above and to the left of the highway. She called emergency personnel and reported what she believed to be an aircraft accident. Shortly after the accident, rain began to fall at the accident site.
The pilot held a private pilot certificate with a single-engine airplane rating. He was not instrument rated. His last third-class medical certificate was issued on August 25, 2004, with no limitations or waivers. His last flight review took place in August 2004. According to records kept by the Empire Aero Club, the pilot accumulated a total of approximately 520 flight hours.
The airplane (serial number 28-5858) was equipped with a Lycoming O-360-A4A engine (serial number L-19495-36A). The airplane underwent its last annual inspection on August 10, 2005, at an aircraft total time of 5,989.3 hours. The Empire Aero Club estimated that the airplane accrued about 6,120 hours at the time of the accident. According to the annual endorsement, the engine accumulated 1,550.8 hours since its last overhaul.
First responders reported that the weather around the time of the accident was poor with low clouds, fog, and rain.
The closest weather observation facilities were located at the Ukiah Airport (UKI - 16 nautical miles north-northwest of the accident site), and at the Charles M. Schulz - Sonoma County Airport (STS - 27 nautical miles southwest of the accident site). The following information was obtained from their weather observation facilities:
At 2256, UKI reported the wind from 140 degrees at 4 knots, visibility 10 statute miles, overcast clouds at 2,100 feet, temperature 14 degrees Celsius, dew point 12 degrees Celsius, and an altimeter setting of 30.00 inches of mercury.
At 2253, STS reported the wind from 110 degrees at 5 knots, visibility 6 statute miles in mist, broken clouds at 1,000 feet, overcast clouds at 1,400 feet, temperature 13 degrees Celsius, dew point 12 degrees Celsius, and an altimeter setting of 30.03 inches of mercury.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
The airplane impacted mountainous terrain near the Squaw Rock area and burned. The wreckage was located at 38 degrees 54.73 minutes north latitude and 123 degrees 03.19 minutes west longitude. Wreckage debris came to rest near the initial point of impact at the base of a hill. All of the flight control surfaces were accounted for at the accident site.
The wreckage was recovered to Plain Parts of Sacramento, California.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
An autopsy on the pilot was conducted by the Mendocino County Sheriff-Coroner Office. The pilot's cause of death was attributed to multiple traumatic injuries. Toxicological tests for carbon monoxide, cyanide, ethanol, and drugs were negative.
TESTS AND RESEARCH
On January 9, 2006, the NTSB investigator (IIC), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) accident coordinator, and investigators from The New Piper Aircraft Company and Textron Lycoming, examined the wreckage at Plain Parts. The airplane's cockpit/cabin area and left wing sustained significant fire damage destroying the surrounding structures. All of the control cables remained intact from the cockpit to the control surface bellcranks; however, they had been cut by retrieval personnel for transport. Two segments of the burnt left wing displayed accordion crushing from the leading edge aft to the rear wing spar. The left aileron and left flap were located in the debris and were unremarkable besides impact and fire damage. The right aileron and flap remained attached to the right wing, which sustained accordion crushing damage from its leading edge aft to the rear wing spar. The flap torque tube and actuator gear remained attached to the right wing, and the flap appeared to be in the retracted position. The empennage separated from the airframe about 3 feet forward of the vertical stabilizer's leading edge. The empennage remained intact with the rudder and elevators in place.
The cockpit instruments were destroyed. Examination of the burnt tachometer face plate showed a shadow of the indicator needle around the 2,500-rpm range. The magneto switch was found with the keys installed and positioned to BOTH. The fuel selector was located with the selector handle in the left fuel tank position.
The propeller separated from the engine crankshaft and one blade was twisted toward low pitch, displaying chordwise scrapes and some leading edge gouges. The other blade displayed some chordwise scrapes and "S" bending. All 4 cylinders remained attached to the engine crankcase. The number 2 cylinder's pushrods were separated and bent. The accessory case was removed and the crankshaft was rotated manually, with continuity confirmed from the propeller flange area to the accessory gears. Thumb compression was obtained from each cylinder with the exception of the number 2 cylinder. The spark plug electrodes remained mechanically undamaged, and according to the Champion Spark Plugs "Check-A-Plug" chart AV-27, the spark plug electrodes displayed coloration consistent with normal operation. The magnetos were in place, but were melted. The vacuum pump was intact and in place, but its drive shaft was melted. Internal examination of the vacuum pump revealed that the stator and vanes remained intact. The carburetor had mud caked into the venturi. The carburetor was disassembled and examined. The carburetor floats were melted and the accelerator pump seal was burnt away.
No anomalies were noted with the wreckage that would have affected the airplane's controllability.