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On July 29, 2008, at 1453 eastern daylight time, a Piper PA-23, N1180P, was substantially damaged when it impacted terrain in Highlands, North Carolina. The certificated airline transport pilot and the pilot-rated passenger were fatally injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan was filed for the flight that departed Bowman Field Airport (LOU), Louisville, Kentucky at 1255, and was destined for Hazlehurst Airport (AZE), Hazlehurst, Georgia. The personal flight was conducted under 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.
According to a friend of the pilot, the pilot recently purchased the airplane, and he and his son were enroute to the pilot's home in Florida on the day of the accident.
Air traffic control (ATC) information provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), revealed the pilot contacted Atlanta Center at 1823:08, reporting level at 9,000 feet and deviating right of course for weather.
At 1829:40, the controller advised the pilot that, "…I'm showing an area of heavy to extreme precipitation at your twelve o'clock and two zero miles it extends approximately fifteen miles south of that position and it's about fifteen to twenty miles wide." The pilot responded by asking which way the controller thought looked the best to go around it. She replied, "I can't tell which direction it's moving it seems to just be building um I'm not sure what if you want to go around the left or right of it either one would be your choice uh you can proceed let me know which way your going to turn and when your done deviations I can give you a heading for Athens VOR." The pilot acknowledged and stated, "…we'll look at it."
At 1831:26, the pilot advised the controller that he would deviate left of course. The controller approved the deviation and after the pilot completed the deviation he reported a heading of 140 degrees. The controller responded, "…approved as requested as far left as you'd like to go."
At 1837:58, the pilot transmitted, "…looks like if we go east a little bit then uh we can head back south." The controller replied, "…eight zero papa affirmative that's what I'm showing too there's another build up that's uh on your current heading in about fifteen to twenty miles and there's about a twenty mile gap between those two build ups and south of that you'll see another one later on I'll call it when you get closer." The pilot acknowledged and the controller continued, "…when you're clear of that first one your heading for Athens will be one seventy heading."
Four minutes later, the controller asked, "November one one eight zero papa how does that weather look now it looks like you're getting closer to the second build up off your right side. The pilot replied, "it looks like it's a line (unintelligible) I see the hole you were talking about eight zero papa." The controller stated, "eight zero papa roger I couldn't tell if it closed up yet or not do you want to just stay on this heading about another twenty miles there's another there's a really big hole up there." The pilot responded, "…we'll stay on this heading (unintelligible) one uh one zero degree heading."
At 1842:30, the controller stated, "[that will] never put you back over Athens [VOR] you're gonna be too far east for that take a look at your charts and I'll get back to you and give you some other routing that when you're clear of that other weather it'll probably be near the uh Greer Airport almost Greer, South Carolina then it'll be southbound towards destination." The pilot acknowledged.
At 1846:32, the controller provided the anticipated new routing to the pilot, which included maneuvering after he was clear of the weather. The pilot acknowledged and stated he was turning to a heading of 130 degrees. The controller replied, "approved and whenever you're ready I'll have a more direct uh I'll have a more precise heading for that Electric City VOR until you're receiving it."
At 1847:54, the pilot asked, "How does that one three zero heading look for the weather?" The controller stated that it, "…looks like you're skirting the very northern edge of what I show as the heavy precipitation." The pilot's response was unintelligible.
At 1849:28, the pilot transmitted, "…eight zero papa we're going to do a one eighty here," and the controller replied "approved as requested."
Radar data indicated the airplane initiated an approximate 270-degree left turn to a westerly heading.
At 1849:40, the controller advised the pilot, "…that weather is about another seven or eight miles off your right side and then south of that is clear." She continued, "…the weather that I'm showing and the precipitation I'm showing and right off your south is it's about another eight miles wide from what I can tell on my radar and then south of that I show nothing at all."
At 1850:06, the pilot reported, "…we're going to turn to a heading of east right now." The controller responded, "…back to the east is approved and uh let me know when you're ready for a heading for Electric City VOR."
At 1850:49, the pilot transmitted, "eight zero papa is in turbulence right now going back around to three zero zero," and the controller acknowledged.
At 1852:21, the controller asked, "November one one eight zero papa you still having turbulence in that area?" The pilot responded affirmatively, and stated that he was starting to head back to the north. The controller described the situation to the pilot stating, "…it was a really big cell there and you skirted just to the north of it that entire time on that hundred heading and looks like you're still right to the very uh the very edge of it on the northern side."
At 1852:43, the pilot acknowledged the information and stated, "…right now we got a heading of three zero zero." The controller replied, "…roger that heading looks good to clear the weather you'll be clear of it again in about four or five miles it appears." The pilot stated, "yeah we got it on the scope just slightly to our left right now."
Radar data indicated at 1853:09, the airplane began a slight left turn toward a southwesterly heading, at an altitude of 9,800 feet. The airplane continued on that heading for another 57 seconds, until the last target was observed at 1853:56.
At 1855:24, the controller asked, "November one one eight zero papa are you clear of that turbulence and that weather now?"
No further transmissions were received from the pilot.
A witness, who was working construction approximately 150 yards from where the airplane impacted, stated he heard what "sounded like a helicopter when it starts up or shuts down." He then looked up to see an engine depart the airplane and continue to travel with some "upward momentum," in a west/northwest direction. Another section of the aircraft structure fell to the ground near where the witness was standing, and at the same time, he heard the airplane impact in the wooded area across the street.
Another witness observed a storm with "a lot of lightning, wind, and heavy rain," to the south of where he was working in an orchard. He noticed the accident airplane flying toward the storm and then disappear as it flew into the dark clouds. Shortly after, he heard two loud "popping noises," and the airplane reappeared out of the clouds "spiraling straight down…like a stunt plane." The witness observed parts of the airplane break off, and at an altitude of 800 feet, the airplane "went from a spiraling nosedive to flattening off and going around and around" until it impacted the ground.
The pilot held an airline transport pilot certificate with a rating for airplane multiengine land. He also held a flight instructor certificate with ratings for airplane single and multiengine and instrument airplane. His most recent FAA first-class medical certificate was issued on July 21, 2008. At that time, he reported 11,920 total hours of flight experience.
The pilot was employed as a professional pilot (captain) who regularly flew Boeing 757 and Boeing 767 aircraft.
The pilot-rated passenger held a private pilot certificate with a rating for airplane single-engine land. His most recent FAA first-class medical certificate was issued on July 21, 2008. At that time he reported 255 total hours of flight experience.
The airplane was manufactured in 1955, and equipped with two Lycoming O-320 engines. The pilot purchased the airplane on July 15, 2008.
Review of the airplane's maintenance records revealed that its most recent annual inspection was performed on September 7, 2007 with no anomalies noted. A 100-hour inspection was performed on March 8, 2008, at a tach time of 2,588 hours, also with no anomalies noted. This was the last entry in the maintenance log books.
The airplane was equipped with a BF Goodrich Flight Systems WX-900 Stormscope.
The airplane was last refueled on July 29, 2008 with 10 gallons of fuel, which "topped the tanks," according to the re-fueler.
The pilot contacted Nashville Automated Flight Service Station (AFSS) by telephone at 1000 EDT, on the day of the accident, to file an IFR flight plan from LOU to AZE and receive an abbreviated weather briefing. The estimated time of departure was provided as 1045 EDT. During the briefing the pilot indicated he was aware of the AIRMET for IFR conditions along the route and asked for the outlook for Florida indicating, "I know it's going to be storming so." At the time of the briefing a Convective SIGMET was current from the Florida peninsula southward to the Fort Meyers area impacting the western part of the state.
At 1141 EDT, the pilot called back to update the proposed departure time to 1245 EDT. No weather updates were requested, and none provided by the facility.
The pilot did not contact AFSS enroute to obtain any other weather updates. Convective SIGMETs were broadcasted on Air Traffic Control Center frequencies and on weather broadcasts.
Examination of weather data by a National Transportation Safety Board Senior Meteorologist revealed the airplane's flight path was immediately north of an area of heavy to extreme intensity echoes, consistent of a multicellular type thunderstorm.
The closest lightning strike was located 3 miles southeast of the accident site, with a cluster of cloud-to-ground strikes directly ahead of the initial flight path before the flight made the 270 degree turn to the west, with other strikes east through south of the accident site.
Significant Meteorology Information (SIGMET)s 42E (issued at 1255 EDT) and 47E (issued at 1355 EDT) were current at the time of the accident, and the accident site was within their boundaries. The SIGMETs warned of a developing area of thunderstorms, and then an area of severe thunderstorms moving from 290 degrees at 15 knots, with tops above 45,000 feet. Severe to extreme turbulence, severe icing, and localized IFR conditions were implied with the issuance of the advisory by definition.
The closest weather reporting facility to the accident site was Macon County Airport (K1A5), located in Franklin, North Carolina, approximately 15 miles northwest of the accident site at an elevation of 2,020 feet msl. The airport had an Automated Weather Observation System (AWOS-3), which recorded the weather at 1441 as: winds from 260 degrees at 8 knots gusting to 16 knots, 10 miles visibility with light rain, scattered clouds at 7,000 feet, and scattered clouds at 8,500 feet.
The next closest weather reporting facility was from Oconee County Regional Airport (KCEU), located in Clemson, South Carolina approximately 28 miles southeast of the accident site at an elevation of 892 feet msl. Examination of the Automated Surface Observation System (ASOS) reports from 1354 through 1554 EDT revealed VFR conditions with thunderstorm activity, and cloud-to-ground lightning activity between 10 and 25 miles to the west, northwest, and northeast of the station.
Weather conditions reported at Asheville Regional Airport (KAVL), Asheville, North Carolina, located 43 miles northeast of the accident site, for the period surrounding the accident included light to heavy rain showers with multiple layers of clouds with marginal VFR (MVFR) to IFR conditions.
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL
A depiction of the weather data on the air traffic controller's display around the time of the accident revealed the aircraft's flight path traveled adjacent to an area of extreme intensity precipitation.
FAA Order 7110.65, "Air Traffic Control," paragraph 2-6-4, "Weather and Chaff Services," states in part:
"2-6-4. WEATHER AND CHAFF SERVICES
a. Issue pertinent information on observed/reported weather and chaff areas. When requested by the pilot, provide radar navigational guidance and/or approve deviations around weather or chaff areas.
1. Issue weather and chaff information by defining the area of coverage in terms of azimuth (by referring to the 12-hour clock) and distance from the aircraft or by indicating the general width of the area and the area of coverage in terms of fixes or distance and direction from fixes…"
The airplane impacted rising terrain, in a heavily wooded area, at an elevation of 2,614 feet. The airplane came to rest, inverted, oriented on a heading of approximately 225 degrees magnetic. Trees surrounding the airplane were virtually undisturbed and there was no forward wreckage path.
The right wing remained attached to the fuselage, and the right flap remained attached to the wing. The right wing spar was cracked at the wing production splice about four feet outboard of the right nacelle; however, the outboard wing panel did not separate from the fuselage. The wingtip was separated from the wing and not located. The right engine remained attached to the wing and the propeller remained attached to the engine with both blades resting perpendicular to the ground. Examination of the propeller revealed slight S-bending.
Two rudder control cables were observed from the cockpit area to the tail separation point, and the cable ends were broomstrawed. Both aileron and the balance cable were attached to the left aileron bellcrank, which was pulled out of the left wing. The aileron and balance cables were intact to the right aileron bell crank.
The tail section (separated aft of the rear passenger seats), the outboard section of the left wing, the left aileron, and several pieces of fuselage skin were located beyond the main wreckage, in a 1/4-mile radius, on the same heading as the airplane's flight path. The left engine was located in a creek about 1/2 mile from the main wreckage, also on the same heading.
The left wing was recovered in two pieces. The inboard wing section was separated from the fuselage at the wing root, and came to rest at the base of a tree. The left flap was attached to the wing at its inboard hinge. The outboard wing section was separated from the inboard section about four feet outboard of the left nacelle at the wing production splice. The fracture surfaces of the left wing, both at the wing root separation point and at the outboard wing separation point, as well as the fracture surfaces of the tail section, displayed signatures consistent with overstress loading. No indications of fatigue were observed in the fractures.
Examination of the cockpit instruments revealed the airspeed indicator read 0 knots, the attitude indicator displayed a 40-degree nose-down attitude, the directional gyro indicated 105 degrees, the altimeter indicated an altitude of 100 feet, and the Kollsman window read 29.92 inches of mercury. The number one VOR was set to 075 degrees, and the number two VOR was set to 176 degrees.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, performed autopsies on both pilots on July 30, 2008. The cause of death for both occupants was blunt traumatic injuries.
The FAA Toxicology and Accident Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma conducted toxicological testing on the pilots. According to the toxicology report, IRBESARTAN was detected in the pilot's blood and urine.
According to the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) Section 7-1-28, "The visible thunderstorm cloud is only a portion of a turbulent system whose updrafts and downdrafts often extend far beyond the visible storm cloud. Severe turbulence can be expected up to 20 miles from severe thunderstorms…No flight path through an area of strong or very strong radar echoes separated by 20-30 miles or less may be considered free of severe turbulence."