MIA06TA093
MIA06TA093

On April 18, 2006, about 0908 Atlantic standard time, a Piper PA-31-310, N554DJ, registered to and operated by the Department of Justice of the United States Virgin Islands, as a public-use flight, ditched in the Caribbean Sea while on approach to land at the Cyril E. King Airport, Charlotte Amalie, Saint Thomas, United States Virgin Islands. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and a company flight plan was filed. The commercial pilot and six passengers reported minor injuries. The airplane sank and has not been recovered; it is presumed destroyed. The flight originated from the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport, Christiansted, Saint Croix, United States Virgin Islands, about 0850.

The pilot reported that this was a routine flight conducted every Tuesday for the purpose of transporting residents of a correctional facility on Saint Croix to Saint Thomas for court hearings. The airplane was based on Saint Thomas. The week prior to the accident, the airplane was not flown due to the Easter holiday. The pilot stated that the airplane was parked outside, and there had been a significant amount of rain during the week.

About 0830, the pilot preflighted the airplane for a positioning flight from Saint Thomas to Saint Croix. The only abnormality he encountered was an excessive amount of water in the left outboard fuel tank when he drained that tank. He also noted some water when he drained the cross feed; however, that was not abnormal. The outboard fuel tanks each contained about 1/4 tank of fuel, and the inboard fuel tanks each contained about 1/2 tank of fuel. After completing the preflight, he again drained the left outboard fuel tank to insure that all water was drained. The pilot then boarded the airplane and flew to Saint Croix. The flight was unremarkable. He did not shut down the engines during the boarding of the six passengers in Saint Croix. The takeoff and cruise portions of the return flight to Saint Thomas were unremarkable.

The pilot stated that during his descent toward the airport, at an indicated altitude of about 1,400 feet, the left engine started to surge. He immediately turned on the electrical fuel boost pumps and moved all of the engine control levers forward. He reduced the descent rate of the airplane from about 600 feet per minute to about 300 feet per minute and maintained an airspeed of 90 knots. About 30 seconds from the time the left engine started surging, the right engine started to surge. He advised the controller in the airport tower of the situation. He instructed the passengers to prepare for a ditching. Both fuel selectors were positioned to the inboard tanks. He switched positions on the fuel tank selectors to the outboard tank position for each engine. The problem did not correct itself. This process was done several times in an attempt to correct the surging. He did not select the cross feed position. He noted the altimeter was indicating 400 feet. He focused on the airspeed so as not to stall and flew the airplane into the water with both engines still surging. The airplane stayed afloat as he and the passengers exited, and then it sank.

The pilot stated that his standard operating procedure was to use the inboard fuel tanks for takeoff and landing, and upon reaching cruise altitude, switch to the outboard tanks. When he began his descent, he switched back to the inboard fuel tanks. A flight between the two islands took about 14 to 17 minutes with a cruising altitude of 3,000 feet. The airplane burned about 17.5 gallons of fuel per engine per hour, for a total of about 35 gallons per hour. He did his flight planning based on a fuel burn rate of 40 gallons per hour.

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