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On October 29, 2009, at 1331 Atlantic standard time, a Cessna 177, N3431T, was destroyed when it impacted a pasture shortly after taking off from Henry E. Rohlsen Airport (TISX), Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. The certificated airline transport pilot and two passengers were fatally injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan had been filed for the flight to Cyril E. King Airport (TIST), Charlotte, Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. The personal flight was conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.
According to a witness, one of the passengers was in the pilot's airport office when the pilot returned from another flight. The pilot came in to the office twice, and the second time, told the passenger to "start the walk-around" inspection of the airplane. After the passenger checked the fuel for water, the pilot returned to check "the controls, aileron, rudder, and elevator." The pilot also confirmed with the passenger that he, the passenger, had checked the fuel for water.
The witness subsequently saw another passenger approach the airplane with two bags, one that "was 3 feet by 12 inches, and the other was 18 inches by 10 inches wide. The baggage appeared to be heavy by the way he was carrying it." The first passenger put the large bag in the baggage compartment, behind the rear seat. The second passenger then walked around the airplane and sat in the back seat with the small bag.
The first passenger then entered the left front seat and the pilot sat in the right front seat. The witness removed the chocks, the engine was started, and an engine run-up was completed on the ramp, near the taxiway. The airplane subsequently taxied to taxiway B. Everything "seemed normal," the airplane took off, then made a left turn and flew out of the witness's sight.
A second witness also saw the preflight inspection and the two bags, but did not note the loading of the baggage or who sat where.
A third witness, a police detective, saw the airplane take off to the east and turn towards the north. It appeared to be "straining to gain altitude," while "flying low at a straight angle." The detective also noted that the "the wings began moving up and down," and that the propeller was spinning. The airplane then "suddenly" made a sharp left turn and went down."
A transcript of radio transmissions between the airplane and the control tower revealed that,
At 1328:15, the airplane was cleared for takeoff from runway 10 at the intersection of taxiway B.
At 1330:55, the controller asked, "cardinal three one tango, are you experiencing any difficulty, and the pilot responded, "yes we are, we're gonna make a turn back."
At 1331:03, the controller advised, "proceed as requested."
There was no response from the airplane.
At 1331:44, the controller asked, "are you airborne," and called again, 1 second later, but there were no further responses from the airplane.
The tower controller then requested that the pilot of another airplane search "two to three miles northeast of the airport," and the pilot of that airplane subsequently reported that the accident airplane was "in a clear pasture, but he's on fire."
In a written statement, the tower controller reported that during the takeoff, "Rotation appeared unusual – slow and a nose-high pitch attitude, with an immediate dip of the right wing. Climb out was low and slow." The airplane turned northbound about 1/4 mile past the end of the runway, and when it was about 2 miles northeast of the airport, it still appeared "low, slow, and in an unusually high pitch attitude."
After the controller asked the pilot if he was experiencing any difficulty, he advised the pilot to proceed as requested, and saw the airplane turn westbound, appearing to maintain a level altitude. The airplane then disappeared behind a hill and did not reappear. The controller attempted to contact the pilot by radio, and when unable, initiated an emergency response.
Another airplane subsequently departed the airport and the pilot reported that the crash site was 2 to 3 miles northeast of the airport, with the airplane on fire.
The airplane was powered by a 150-horsepower O-320-series engine. According to the aircraft maintenance logbook, the airplane's latest annual inspection occurred on April 15, 2009, at 3,278.4 hours. The last maintenance on the airplane was performed by owner, under the supervision of a certificated Airframe and Powerplant mechanic, on June 13, 2009, at 3,306.9 hours. Maintenance included stop-drilling tail cone cracks, repair of the upper rudder fairing, "to return to proper shape," and the blending of the propeller blade tips.
The airplane was issued a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) that allowed the usage of automotive gasoline with a minimum octane of 87.
Flight instruments were on the left side of the instrument panel.
According to the owner of the airplane, prior to the accident flight, he added 10 gallons of premium automotive fuel to the airplane that he had bought at a gas station next to the airport. Using a calibrated stick, he subsequently determined that there were approximately 10 gallons of fuel in the left tank and 15 gallons of fuel in the right tank.
There were no recording devices installed on the airplane, except for a JPI-700 engine monitor that could have contained non-volatile engine information.
According to FAA records, the pilot, age 45, held an airline transport pilot certificate with airplane multi-engine land and airplane multi-engine sea ratings. He also held a private pilot certificate with an airplane single engine land rating. He did not hold a flight instructor certificate.
According to the pilot's resume, and as confirmed by the operator, the pilot had worked for a scheduled inter-island air carrier from 2000 to 2003. Since then, there was no biennial flight review (BFR) listed in the pilot's logbook. There was, however, a 1.0-hour, "check out in PA-23-250" earlier in the day on October 29, 2009. The logbook entry noted, "steep turn engine out B/A Vmc." According to the certificated flight instructor (CFI), the pilot advised him that although there was no BFR listed in his logbook, he did have a current one. The CFI further noted that the pilot also practiced short field takeoffs and landings during the check out, in preparation for an upcoming flight to St. Barts.
The pilot's logbook did not indicate any flight time in the accident airplane; however, the airplane's owner stated that he had access to it "on a regular basis."
The pilot's resume indicated that, as of August 2008, he had 5,147 total flight hours. The pilot's latest FAA first class medical certificate was issued on September 12, 2008, and at the time, the pilot indicated 5,280 hours of flight time.
According to personnel at the U.S. Virgin Island Police Department Forensics Unit, the individual seated in the right front seat of the airplane was identified as the pilot.
According to the owner of the airplane, the passenger, a native of St. Vincent, had recently filled out "TSA applications for a foreigner" to commence student flight training, and had almost finished the application process. The pilot had previously allowed the passenger to fly from the right seat.
Runway 10 was 10,004 feet long and 150 feet wide. Taxiway B to the end of the runway was about 7,500 feet.
There were no radar facilities at the airport.
Weather, recorded at the airport at 1336, included a few clouds at 2,300 feet, winds from 070 degrees true at 14, gusting to 20 knots, temperature 31 degrees Centigrade (C), dew point 23 degrees C, and an altimeter setting of 29.89 inches Hg.
The wreckage was located in a field about 2 miles northeast of the airport, in the vicinity of 17 degrees, 43.14 minutes north latitude, 64 degrees, 47.49 minutes west longitude. Parts of the airplane, most notably the wings, had been displaced prior to NTSB arrival to remove the occupants.
There were no ground scars attributed to the airplane found outside the immediate area of the wreckage. All flight control surfaces were accounted for at the accident site. The majority of the airplane was headed 055 degrees magnetic, with the tail broken off about 20 degrees to the right. When the tail was lifted, dirt was found adhered to the right side of the tie down ring, as well as the right side, lower portion of the tail cone.
An indentation was found in the ground, beginning near the right side of the fuselage. It ended with green plastic lens material that correlated to the right wing tip. The angle of the indentation, relative to the fuselage of the airplane was approximately 70 degrees as measured from the nose. The outboard half of the right wing had leading edge crushing that increased in angle and depth closer toward the wingtip.
Another indentation was found in the ground on the left side of the fuselage, with clear plastic lens material that correlated to left wing landing light. The angle of the indentation, relative to the fuselage of the airplane, was approximately 120 degrees as measured from the nose. Much of the left wing was consumed by fire; however, the leading edge, which was intact, exhibited no accordion crushing.
Flap actuator measurement correlated to the flaps being up.
Visual examination of the stabilator trim tab at the accident site indicated that it was in a near neutral position. Examination of the stabilator trim cable stop blocks in the tailcone revealed that the center block was full aft, which correlated to a stabilator trim tab full up (airplane full down nose trim) position.
The cockpit was consumed by fire, and the engine controls were destroyed. Total operational time of the airplane could not be determined. The fuel tank handle indicated fuel feeding from the right tank.
The two-bladed propeller was found partially buried in the ground. One propeller blade, with the leading edge facing up and the trailing edge buried, had significant leading edge gouging and chordwise scratching. The other propeller blade was initially found with the leading edge buried. Once removed from the ground, it exhibited almost no leading edge gouging, but did exhibit chordwise scratching.
The spinner was flat in one quadrant, with circular aft crushing on remaining portions. Spinner material was also impaled on, and torn in a circular direction by underlying retaining bolt heads.
The engine was subsequently separated from the airframe. Crankshaft continuity was confirmed, and all accessory gears turned on the back of the engine. Compression was confirmed on all cylinders. Seven of the eight spark plugs could be removed, with all gaps set approximately .025 to .026 inches. The magnetos exhibited impact and fire damage, and did not produce a spark when rotated by hand.
The carburetor as found was cracked at the mounting flange, with black soot adhering to it. The mixture cable was found pulled free from the mixture arm attaching hardware while the throttle cable remained attached to the throttle arm. The carburetor was opened and the floats examined, with both exhibiting deformation consistent with hydraulic crushing.
Residual fuel found in the fuel strainer had an odor of automotive fuel and was red in color. Fuel samples taken at the nearby gas station revealed that the 93-octane premium fuel was red in color.
Accurate weight and balance calculations could not be performed. Baggage and contents remnants recovered from the airplane were mostly consumed by fire.
The JPI-700 engine monitor was found after the wreckage had been moved a second time, and was forwarded to the NTSB for download; however, a data download could not be accomplished due to extensive thermal damage.
MEDCIAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
An autopsy was performed on the pilot under the auspices of the Government of the Virgin Islands of the United States, Office of the Medical Examiner, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. The cause of death was listed as, "Multiple injuries due to blunt force trauma."
Toxicological testing was subsequently performed by the FAA Forensic Toxicology Research Team, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with no anomalies noted.
According to FAA-H-8083-25, Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, "Generally, an airplane becomes less controllable, especially at slow flight speeds, as the center of gravity [CG] is moved further aft."
According to FAA-H-8083-1A, Aircraft Weight and Balance Handbook, "If the CG is too far aft, it will be too near the center of lift and the airplane will be unstable, and difficult to recover from a stall. If the unstable airplane should ever enter a spin, the spin could become flat and recovery would be difficult or impossible."