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On January 11, 2009, at 2116 central standard time, a Piper PA-46-500TP, N428DC, was substantially damaged when it impacted terrain in Milton, Florida. The certificated commercial pilot, the sole occupant, was not injured. Night visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan was filed from Anderson Municipal Airport (AID), Anderson, Indiana, to Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (DTS), Destin, Florida. The personal flight was conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.
According to a Kankakee, Illinois, Automated Flight Service Station partial transcript, the pilot contacted the facility on January 11, 2009, at 1629, to obtain a weather briefing and file the IFR flight plan for a flight from AID to DTS. As part of the weather briefing, the briefer advised the pilot that an AIRMET (Airmen’s Meteorological Information) advisory was current for moderate turbulence above 24,000 feet. During the briefing, the pilot also filed the IFR flight plan for the flight, with a proposed departure time of 1730. He stated to the briefer that the flight would be 2 hours’ duration, and that he would have 4 hours and 10 minutes of fuel on board.
According to air traffic control (ATC) voice communications and radar data provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the airplane departed AID at 1744. At 1920, while the airplane was flying level at an altitude of 24,000 feet in the vicinity of Guntersville, Alabama, the pilot reported to Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center, "um severe chop at two four oh." He was asked to repeat the transmission and stated, "moderate to severe turbulence at two four oh."
The controller subsequently asked the pilot what altitude he would like to descend to, and the pilot responded 2 minutes later, "atlanta meridian four two delta charlie requesting emergency descent." The controller approved the descent, and the pilot responded, "…my windshield is cracking." The controller acknowledged the pilot's transmission and again approved the descent.
At 1924, the pilot stated, "and we're going down to descending down to (unintelligible)." Eight seconds later the pilot reported that he lost the door of the airplane.
At 1926, the pilot stated, "…looks like my windshield has gone into my (unintelligible)." The controller acknowledged the report and stated, "eight delta charlie the gadsden airport it's at uh ten o'clock and fifteen miles birmingham airport is at one o'clock and about thirty miles sir." About 40 seconds later, the pilot reported that he had 3 hours of fuel on board. At the time, radar data indicated that the airplane was descending through 15,600 feet and was heading approximately 180 degrees magnetic.
At 1927, the pilot reported, "(unintelligible) we pointed toward the ocean toward the gulf," and shortly thereafter, "I'm bleeding profusely gonna go ahead and point the aircraft at the gulf we have three hours of fuel left we're losing altitude (unintelligible)." The controller acknowledged the report and issued vectors to the pilot for the two closest airports.
At 1929, the pilot asked, "center what's the terrain clearance?" The controller responded, "eight delta charlie in your area a good altitude is three thousand five hundred we got the gadsden airport off to your left sir if you pick up a one hundred heading it's about ten miles off your left and about a one hundred heading sir."
The pilot subsequently responded, "ah i have the controls locked and i'm graying out." The controller stated, "…roger there's an airport at your one o'clock...that's robbins field sir."
Although the controller continued to provide vectors to the pilot to different airports as the airplane proceeded toward the Gulf of Mexico, no further transmissions were received from the airplane.
Radar data indicated that the airplane remained level at 4,000 feet, heading approximately 180 degrees magnetic, until it turned slightly to the west in the vicinity of Vincent, Alabama.
The airplane subsequently continued to the southwest, passing west of Montgomery, Alabama, on a heading of approximately 190 degrees magnetic.
Military fighter jets were scrambled from New Orleans, Louisiana, to intercept the airplane as it flew south into Florida. According to the military pilots, as they approached the airplane, it was at an altitude of 3,800 feet and flying at an airspeed of 90 knots. The pilots reported that there were no lights on inside or outside the airplane, and that the door was open. Flares were used in an attempt to get the pilot's attention, with no response. About 10 minutes after the use of the flares, the airplane initiated “what appeared to be a slow, relatively controlled descent.”
Radar data indicated that the airplane initiated a descent at 2024, 2 miles south of Roberts, Alabama. The airplane continued southbound for 24 nautical miles, in a gradual descent, until it impacted wooded terrain near Milton, Florida.
One of the military pilots reported that the airplane initiated a slow right turn just prior to impacting terrain, about 100 yards west of a residential area near the edge of a lake.
Search and rescue efforts were immediately initiated, and the airplane was located by ground units at 2216, with no indication of the pilot being onboard at the time of impact.
The pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine land and instrument airplane. He did not possess a current FAA medical certificate, but on his latest application, the pilot reported 9,200 total hours of flight experience.
According to FAA records, the accident airplane was a Piper PA-46-500TP (Piper Meridian),manufactured in 2002, and registered to the owner in 2005. The Meridian was a single-engine airplane powered by a Pratt and Whitney PT-6A-42A turbo-propeller engine, with a flat rated power of 500 shaft horsepower. The airplane had a normal operating speed range of 79 to 188 knots, and a stall speed of 79 to 69 knots with the landing gear and flaps retracted.
The airplane was equipped with an Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS), which interfaced with a three-axis autopilot system.
According to an employee of the Anderson Municipal Airport, the airplane was fueled with 57 gallons (385 pounds) of Jet A fuel, which "topped off the tanks," on January 11, 2009, at 1501. The employee stated that the pilot told him that he was going to Destin, Florida, to visit his father. He additionally stated that he would return the following day.
According to the Piper PA-46-500TP Pilot's Operating Handbook, the airplane had a total fuel capacity of 1,160 pounds of Jet A fuel, 20 pounds of which were unusable. The fuel system consists of two main, inboard, and header wing tanks. Fuel is drawn from both wings simultaneously, with float valves and switches employed to prevent air ingestion. An inline electric boost pump is located in each wing root just forward of the header tanks. Control of these pumps is through a three-position switch located on the left overhead panel with selections: MAN, OFF, and AUTO. The pumps operate in unison to provide emergency back up for the engine driven pump, boost pressure for starting, and vapor suppression at high altitudes. The fuel pump switch was observed in the AUTO position after the accident.
Fuel burn calculations performed by a representative of the airplane manufacturer estimated that approximately 360 pounds of fuel would have been onboard when the airplane impacted the ground.
The weather, recorded at nearby Naval Air Station Whiting Field (NDZ), Milton, Florida, at 2156, included winds from 360 degrees at 6 knots, clear skies, temperature 6 degrees Celsius (C), dew point 01 degree C, and an altimeter setting of 30.22 inches mercury.
The airplane impacted densely wooded terrain, about 18 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, creating a 120-foot debris path heading about 180 degrees magnetic. The start of the debris path was marked by freshly broken tree branches and an outboard section of the left wing which displayed a concave impression on its leading edge. The main wreckage came to rest inverted and marked the end of the debris path.
Examination of the wreckage did not reveal any preimpact failures or malfunctions. All major components were accounted for at the scene. The door was also found partially connected to the airframe and the windshield was found undamaged, and secured in its frame.
Both fuel tanks were breached, and trace amounts of fuel were observed in the wings.
All three propeller blades exhibited leading edge damage, chordwise scratching and s-bending.
Law enforcement personnel determined that the pilot deliberately mislead air traffic controllers and parachuted from the aircraft, and, after a brief manhunt, the pilot was apprehended and incarcerated. On June 5, 2009, the pilot appeared before the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Pensacola Division, and plead guilty to Federal charges of willful destruction of an aircraft (18 U.S.C. § 32(a)(1)) and knowingly and willfully communicating a false distress message to the United States Coast Guard (14 U.S.C. § 88(c)). In the course of entering his guilty plea, the pilot admitted, among other facts, the following: that on or about December 31, 2008, Indiana state officials had executed search warrants on the pilot’s home and business; that on or about January 10, 2009, the pilot had prepositioned a motorcycle in a storage facility in Harpersville, Alabama; that during the flight, and after descending the airplane to 3,500 feet, the pilot had made course corrections to fly toward Harpersville and, while near Childersburg, Alabama, the pilot parachuted from his aircraft. On August 19, 2009, the pilot was sentenced to serve a 51-month term of imprisonment, and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $34,649.07 to the United States Coast Guard for costs expended in the search effort and $871,387.85 to the creditor that owned the aircraft.
The NTSB public docket contains relevant court records.