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On May 12, 2008, at 0533 eastern daylight time (EDT), a Piper PA-32-260, N64FP, collided with mountainous terrain near Cruso, North Carolina. The certificated private pilot and passenger were killed, and the airplane was destroyed. The flight was operated as a personal flight under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91, and no flight plan was filed. The flight departed Rutherford County Airport-Marchman Field (FQD), Rutherfordton, North Carolina, about 0500 with a planned destination of North Little Rock Municipal Airport (ORK), North Little Rock, Arkansas. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed in the vicinity of the accident.
Review of radar data provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) revealed that at 0522, a target crossed over Asheville Regional Airport (AVL), North Carolina, on a westbound track at a mode C reported altitude of 9,200 feet. For the next 7 minutes, the target continued on the track and descended to 8,300 feet. During the next 2 minutes, the target entered a descending right turn, before continuing northwest at an altitude of 7,100 feet. The next radar return was observed 10 seconds later at an altitude of 6,100 feet. The target then began to track towards the southwest, and climbed to 6,300 feet. The target continued to descend for the last minute to the final return at 5,800 feet. The wreckage was located on the southern face of Cold Mountain, at an elevation of 4,700 feet, 0.6 miles west of the final radar return.
According to the pilot's mother, who resided in Rutherfordton, the pilot departed in the accident airplane from Central Florida the day prior to the accident, arriving in Rutherfordton at about 2000. She picked him up from the airport and drove him back to her house. Later that night she observed him checking the weather on his computer and he reported that the, "weather is fine." She stated that he went to bed at 2230 and rose at 0305 the following morning. She drove him to the airport at 0400 and recalled that he loaded two additional airplane seats into the airplane.
A friend of the pilot reported that he was due to meet him at ORK at 1100 on the day of the accident. He stated that on the night prior, the pilot called him and reported that he would depart from FQD at 0700. They intended to fly onward to North Dallas to attend a seminar. He noted that the seminar was a 2-day event, however they planned to specifically fly in to be present for a 2-hour segment that was due to begin 1300. He did not recall if the pilot was due to speak at the seminar, however he noted that the pilot was always a popular figure at such events. They planned on departing for Lubbock, Texas at 1500.
The pilot, age 44, held a private pilot certificate with a rating for airplane single-engine land. He did not hold an instrument rating. Review of his pilot logbooks revealed that as of April 25, 2008, he had accumulated about 616 total hours of flight experience, which included about 66 hours in night conditions. His most recent flight review was completed on April 12, 2008.
The low-wing, single-engine, Piper PA-32-260, was configured with seven seats and manufactured in 1966. Review of the airframe maintenance logbooks revealed the following notation at the annual inspection dated November 1, 2001, "Tach hourmeter is no longer accurate." A tachometer time of 89.9 hours was recorded for all subsequent annual inspections along with notations stating that the airplane flight hours were reported by the operator. The tachometer hourmeter was located in the airplane wreckage and displayed 89.9 hours. The Hobbs hourmeter device was not located in the airplane wreckage. The last annual inspection completed on the airplane and engine took place on October 24, 2007. At the time of the inspection, the total recorded airframe time was 2124.5 hours. At the time of the annual inspection, the six-cylinder Lycoming O-540-E4B5 engine had accrued 656.5 hours since the most recent major overhaul, which was performed in February 1979. Pitot static, altimeter, and transponder inspections were accomplished on October 16, 2007. The last logbook entry indicated that on Feb 20, 2008 the airplane received an avionics upgrade, which included the installation of a Garmin GNS430W GPS/Nav/Comm, a Garmin GTX330 mode S transponder, a PS Engineering PMA8000B audio panel, a SigmaTek 4000C directional gyro, an S-TEC system 30 autopilot, and an overhead mounted in-flight entertainment system.
The closest official weather observation station to the accident site was AVL, located about 15 miles east of the accident site. The elevation of the weather observation station was 2,165 feet msl. An aviation routine weather report (METAR) was issued at 0554. It stated: winds from 330 degrees at 22 knots, gusting to 31 knots; visibility 10 miles; skies 3,700 feet broken, 4,300 feet broken, 6,000 feet overcast; temperature 11 degrees Celsius; dew point 4 degrees Celsius; altimeter 29.67 inches of mercury.
A METAR was issued for Shelby-Cleveland County Regional Airport (EHO), Shelby, North Carolina at 0500. The weather observation station was at an elevation of 847 feet msl and located 19.5 miles southeast of the departure airport. It stated: winds from 290 degrees at 3 knots; visibility 10 statute miles; skies 6,000 feet scattered, 7,000 feet broken, 8,000 feet broken; temperature 13 degrees Celsius; dew point 7 degrees Celsius; altimeter 29.58 inches of mercury.
Review of weather data by a National Transportation Safety Board meteorologist revealed a Surface Analysis chart prepared by the National Weather Service (NWS) National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) for 0400 May 12, showed a strong, northwesterly flow over North Carolina.
At 2245 on May 11, The NWS had issued high wind warnings and an airman's meteorological information AIRMET for moderate turbulence and high winds in the accident area.
Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-12 (GOES-12) infrared digital data centered on the accident location were obtained through the NOAA’s Comprehensive Large Array-data Stewardship System (CLASS). The data revealed that at the time of the accident a band of clouds existed over central-western North Carolina, and in the vicinity of Rutherfordton and Asheville. This band bordered the airplane's route of flight over Asheville. The data indicated that the radiative temperature at the approximate accident location for the nominal times of 0515 and 0532 was about –7 degrees C. During this time period the radiative temperature in the vicinity of Asheville was -2 degrees C.
The Greer Weather Surveillance Radar-1988, Doppler (KGSP WSR-88D) radar was the closest Doppler weather radar to the accident location. Data for this site was obtained from the NWS. The data for the altitude scan between 1,900 feet and 12,000 feet at 0531:21 revealed an area of reflectivity with intensities between +12 and -8 decibels in the vicinity of the airplane. FAA radar data revealed that during the time period of 0530:25 to 0532:16 the, airplane's radar return descended from 8,300 feet to 6,100 feet.
North American Model (NAM) winds aloft data for the area obtained from the NWS NCEP, predicted that at the time of the accident, the area winds at 7,000 feet would have been out of the northwest at a velocity of about 60 knots.
According to the U.S. Naval Observatory, Astronomical Applications Department, sunrise occurred in Asheville on the day of the accident at 0627 with civil twilight beginning at 0559.
The FAA reported that there was no record of a pilot preflight weather briefing, nor was there any record of the pilot communicating with any FAA facilities during the accident flight. According to Computer Science Corporation (CSC) Direct User Access Terminal System (DUATS) records, the pilot last accessed the DUATS system on January 21, 2008.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
The wreckage was located in heavily wooded terrain, on an approximate 70-degree slope. The highest elevation in the area was 6,030 feet msl, 1 mile west of the accident location. Terrain in the general vicinity consisted of multiple 4,000 to 6,000 foot peaks and ridgelines oriented from the northeast to southwest. The first identified point of impact (FIPC) was characterized by severed tree branches located approximately 75 feet southeast, and 20 feet above the main wreckage. Several pieces of angularly cut wood were scattered along the wreckage path. The odor of aviation gasoline was present at the site.
The airplane came to rest on a heading of 320 degrees magnetic. The right wing was separated at the wing root, and was folded back underneath the empennage. The right wing and tip fuel tanks were breached. The right aileron had separated from the wing and was located folded around a tree limb at the FIPC. The left wing was partially separated from the fuselage, and both the left wing tank, and tip fuel tank were breached. The empennage section remained attached to the main cabin area; the vertical stabilizer, rudder, stabilator, and stabilator trim tab remained intact. Accordion crush damage was observed forward of the vertical stabilizer to the aft baggage compartment. The remaining cabin area sustained crush deformation and fragmentation through to the engine firewall. The instrument panel was destroyed. All control surfaces were accounted for at the accident site.
In addition to the seven main cabin seats, three additional seats were observed 10 feet beyond the main wreckage area. A representative from the airplane manufacturer identified these as additional seats that were not attached to the airframe. The rear cargo straps were observed locked and in a stowed position.
The engine remained aligned with the fuselage, the forward section was found partially buried in soil, with the rear section obstructed from full view by the remnants of the instrument panel. Portions of the cowling were distributed in the surrounding wreckage areas. One of the propeller blades protruded from the soil and displayed a 45-degree curl 2 inches from the tip, in addition to leading edge nicks and chordwise scratches. The attitude indicator was noted crushed and separated from the instrument panel. Disassembly of the unit revealed scratch signatures consistent with internal rotational scoring.
The fuel selector valve was found separated from the airframe and located in the cabin area. The valve was observed in the left wing tank position. The valve was tested with the application of low air pressure, and found to be operational in all positions. The valve was disassembled, the fuel screen was absent of blockage, and trace amounts of fuel were found in the bowl.
The wreckage was recovered from the accident site and moved to a storage facility in Griffin, Georgia for further examination.
Control continuity from forward cockpit to control surfaces was established and all seven seats were separated from their respective mounting points. Remnants of all fuel caps were accounted for on the airplane. The flight instrument vacuum pump was noted fractured at its mounting but remained attached to the mounting pad. The frangible coupling was observed intact.
Investigators achieved manual rotation of the crankshaft through crankshaft propeller flange. Thumb compression was established in all cylinders. Valve train continuity was observed through to the rear accessory case and oil was observed in the rocker box areas on all cylinders. Investigators removed the spark plugs of all cylinders; they were gray in color. A borescope examination of the cylinders revealed no foreign object damage, and no anomalies were noted on the valve heads and combustion surfaces.
There was no evidence of premishap mechanical malfunction or failure observed during the examination of the engine or airframe. A detailed engine examination report is contained in the public docket for this accident.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
Autopsies were conducted by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The cause of death for both occupants was reported as multiple blunt force injuries.
Toxicological tests on specimens from the pilot were performed by the FAA Civil Aeromedical Institute, the tests were negative for volatiles, and drug testing was positive for Citalopram, N-Desmethylcitalopram, and DI-N-Desmethylcitalopram in Kidney and Liver samples. No blood or urine samples were available for testing.
In addition, a drug prescription bottle addressed to the pilot was located in the wreckage. The label on the bottle indicated that its contents had contained a total of ninety, 40mg doses of Citalopram, with an issue date of January 19, 2008.
The pilot's most recent FAA second-class medical certificate was issued January 30, 2008, with no limitations or waivers. The pilot had not reported the use of Citalopram on his most recent application for an airman medical certificate. The Citalopram was prescribed by a family practitioner, and not the doctor who performed the FAA medical exam.