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On December 24, 2009, about 2200 central standard time (CST), a Piper PA-28-140, N1277T, was substantially damaged when it impacted terrain in Heflin, Alabama. The certificated student pilot was fatally injured. Marginal visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed. The personal flight originated at St. Clair County Airport (PLR), Pell City, Alabama and was destined for Cobb County-McCollum Field (RYY), Atlanta, Georgia. The flight was conducted under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.
Information provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Lockheed Martin Flight Service revealed the student pilot had not contacted either entity to obtain a weather briefing or file a flight plan.
According to the student pilot's girlfriend, the purpose of the flight was to visit her and her family in Atlanta for Christmas. The student pilot had originally planned the flight for the following day, but decided to fly on the night prior instead. The student pilot’s girlfriend spoke with him while he was at PLR, between 2045 and 2145 CST, prior to his departure. She informed him that there was a high wind advisory for the Atlanta area and that the weather was “bad.” The student pilot responded to her “I’m a pilot.” He stated that it was windy, but not raining at PLR; however, she responded that it was raining hard at RYY. The student pilot expected to land at RYY around 2330 eastern standard time.
When the airplane did not land by 0200 on December 25, 2009, the student pilot’s girlfriend notified authorities and an alert notice (ALNOT) was issued by the FAA. Search and rescue was initiated, and the airplane was located in the Talladega National Forest on December 25, 2009, around 1600 CST.
The student pilot, age 21, held an FAA third-class medical and student pilot certificate, issued on November 6, 2009. At that time, he reported 6 hours of total flight experience.
The student pilot's logbook was located in the airplane. Examination of the logbook revealed the first entry was for a flight on October 30, 2009, and that the student pilot had accumulated 26 hours of total flight experience, all of which were in the previous 2 months. He had accumulated 6.5 hours of night flight experience, all with an instructor.
According to the logbook, the student pilot completed his first solo flight on December 20, 2009, and his second solo flight on December 23, 2009, both in the traffic pattern at PLR.
The student pilot had an endorsement in his logbook for solo flight within 25 miles of ASN. The endorsement included the following limitations: wind 10 knots, crosswind less than 6 knots, cloud ceiling 2,300 feet, and visibility greater than 6 miles.
The student pilot did not have an instructor's endorsement for a cross-country flight. According to both of the student pilot's instructors, he had not received any cross-country flight training.
The Piper PA-28-140 was a low wing airplane, powered by a single Lycoming O-320 engine. It was manufactured in 1972.
According to documents found in the airplane, the student pilot purchased the airplane on December 23, 2009.
Examination of the airplane and engine logbooks revealed that the most recent annual inspection was completed on November 1, 2009, at a tachometer time of 492 hours. No anomalies were noted during the inspection.
According to fuel records from PLR, the airplane was last refueled at 1205 on December 24, 2009, with 26.54 gallons of fuel. After the accident, the airport manager secured samples from the fuel tank, filters and dispenser hose which fueled the accident airplane. The samples were examined by an FAA inspector and no contamination or water was noted.
According to a recorded weather provided by an Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS) at PLR, the weather at 2120 included winds from 110 degrees at 11 knots gusting to 17 knots, visibility 5 miles, few clouds at 200 feet, a broken cloud ceiling at 1,600 feet, and an overcast cloud ceiling at 3,000 feet.
At 1930 the weather included winds from 100 degrees at 10 knots gusting to 20 knots, visibility 6 miles, a broken clouds ceiling at 1,800 feet and 2,800 feet.
At 1940 the weather included winds from 100 degrees at 12 knots gusting to 20 knots, visibility 5 miles, few clouds at 100 feet, a broken cloud ceiling at 1,600 feet, and an overcast cloud ceiling at 4,200 feet.
The weather reported at Anniston Municipal Airport (ANB), Anniston, Alabama, 13 nautical miles southwest of the accident site, at 2053, included winds from 100 degrees at 17 knots, gusting to 24 knots, 4 miles visibility with rain and mist, and a broken cloud ceiling at 1,900 feet.
At 2153, weather at ANB included winds from 110 degrees at 11 knots gusting to 19 knots, 4 miles visibility with rain and mist, and scattered clouds at 1,700 feet.
At 2253, weather at ANB included winds from 110 degrees at 15 knots gusting to 25 knots, 2 ½ miles visibility with rain and mist, and scattered clouds at 1,600 feet.
The weather reported at RYY, the pilot's destination, at 2050, included winds from 100 degrees at 17 knots gusting to 27 knots, 10 miles visibility, a broken cloud ceiling at 2,000 feet, and an overcast cloud ceiling at 9,000 feet.
At 2148, the weather at RYY included winds from 110 degrees at 18 knots gusting to 30 knots, visibility 7 miles with light rain, and an overcast cloud ceiling at 1,600 feet.
According to a Lieutenant at the Anniston, Alabama, Fire Department, between the hours of 1900 and 2000, the Fire Department received numerous calls for down power lines and power outages due to heavy rain and high winds in the area of the accident site.
The airplane impacted a heavily wooded area, at an elevation of 1,244 feet, in the vicinity of 33 degrees, 42 minutes north latitude, and 085 degrees 36 minutes west longitude.
The airplane came to rest, upright, oriented downslope on a heading of 120 degrees magnetic. The terrain inclined at approximately 35 degrees. All components of the airplane were located in a compact area, there was no wreckage path, and trees in the surrounding vicinity were not disturbed.
The forward cabin displayed severe crushing and was compressed aft from the instrument panel to the aft bulkhead area.
The firewall, engine, and propeller were buried in the ground just forward of the fuselage structure and were not visible.
The throttle and mixture control levers were observed in the full forward position. The altimeter displayed 960 feet, and 29.60 was set in the Kohlsman window. The airspeed indicator displayed 190 miles per hour (160 knots), the vertical speed indicator displayed a 750 foot-per-minute descent, the magnetic compass indicated 090 degree heading, and the VOR was set to 090 degrees.
Both wings remained attached to the fuselage at their forward wing root attachment points. The leading edges of both wings displayed symmetrical aft crushing. Both wing fuel tanks were breached and their fuel tank caps secured.
The empennage remained attached to the fuselage, and little to no damage was observed to the vertical fin, rudder, or stabilator.
Flight control continuity was confirmed from the cockpit area to the respective flight controls. Both flaps appeared to be in the retracted position.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, Huntsville, Alabama, performed an autopsy on the pilot on December 29, 2009. The cause of death was listed as “blunt force injuries due to aircraft collision.” Additionally noted in the autopsy report was that the blood submitted for toxicology testing was “from the plural space.”
The FAA Toxicology and Accident Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, conducted toxicological testing on the pilot. Following were the results of the toxicological testing:
73 (mg/dL, mg/hg) ETHANOL detected in Brain
72 (mg/dL, mg/hg) ETHANOL detected in Muscle
64 (mg/dL, mg/hg) ETHANOL detected in Blood
57 (mg/dL, mg/hg) ETHANOL detected in Heart
0.772 (ug/ml, ug/g) Amphetamine detected in Lung
0.489 (ug/ml, ug/g) Amphetamine detected in Liver
The NTSB Medical Officer reviewed the medical records maintained by the FAA Aerospace Medical Certification Division, as well as records kept by the pilot’s pharmacy and his physician. The following information was extracted from those records:
Medical records maintained on the student pilot by a family practice physician indicated the discontinuation in June 2006 of a prescription antidepressant, and the subsequent trial of three different prescription medications over two years for the treatment of symptoms diagnosed by the family practice physician as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). There were no indications in those records of any psychiatric or psychological evaluations of the student pilot. Pharmacy records documented the monthly filling of prescriptions for the student pilot of 30 tablets of 20 mg extended release mixed amphetamine salts since September 2009, most recently on December 23, 2009.
The student pilot’s only application for airman medical certificate, dated November 5, 2009, did not note the use of any medications or any medical diagnoses.
Four unopened beer cans were observed in a duffel bag, in the airplane, at the wreckage site. Four additional beer cans were observed around the wreckage. These cans were damaged by impact and it could not be determined whether they were opened prior to impact.
Also observed in the wreckage was an empty (opened) can of 'Red Bull' energy drink, an astray full of cigarette butts, and a water bottle with chewed tobacco inside.
A prescription pill bottle of "D-AMPHETAMINE SALT XR 20 MG…generic for Adderall XR 20mg" was also observed in the wreckage. The prescription was filled on December 23, 2009, and had the student pilot's name and address on the bottle. Instructions on the bottle stated, "take one pill by mouth each morning." The prescription was filled with 30 pills and 25 remained in the bottle.
TESTS AND RESEARCH
A Lowrance Airmap 1000 hand-held GPS unit and a FujiFilm WP FinePix camera were recovered from the airplane wreckage and sent to the NTSB Vehicle Recorder Laboratory for examination. According to the Engineer's Factual Report, the GPS sustained significant accident damage; however, flight track data was able to be extracted from the unit. The recorded tracklog data was identified and converted to engineering units. No data was recovered for the accident flight.
The camera also sustained minor impact damage. The SD card was removed from the camera and read out. No accident related files were recovered from the camera or associated SD card.
An FAA inspector viewed a security camera recording from PLR. Review of the recording revealed the student pilot fueling the airplane around 1200 CST on December 24, 2009. It also showed the pilot arriving through one of the airport gates again, at 1450. About 5 minutes later, at 1455, an airplane which appeared to be the accident airplane, was observed taxiing to the runway. The surveillance cameras at the airport did not show the student pilot leaving or returning again. The camera recorded the pilot-controlled runway lights being turned on at 2158.
According to both of the student pilot's flight instructors, they specifically explained the requirements of his solo sign-off on the night before the accident. They explained he was not allowed to fly at night, with anyone else in the airplane, or more than 25 miles from Pell City airport. He was also not allowed to land anywhere other than Pell City.
Despite these restrictions, the student pilot's girlfriend reported she had flown with him on several occasions. She stated he was a “good pilot.” He could fly with or without the GPS and was capable of flying in instrument conditions. The student pilot's girlfriend also reported the pilot was "hard headed" and could not be talked out of making the flight on the night of the accident.
On the day of the accident, one of the student pilot's flight instructors drove by PLR and observed him fueling the accident airplane. The instructor called the student pilot and told him he "needed to be through flying for the day," due to the adverse weather predicted. The student pilot agreed and told him he would put the airplane away.
The student pilot's flight instructor also commented that he was "overconfident" and after purchasing the airplane may have had more of an "attitude that he could do anything." The instructor stated that the student pilot had "pretty good" night flying skills, but was "terrible" at instrument flight. He had not taught the student pilot how to use a GPS during his flight training.
A review of the student pilot's Alabama driving record revealed no alcohol-related motor vehicle incidents. However, the student pilot had violations for "speeding (three times), improper tag, and running a red light." His license was suspended for 60 days for "mutilating, defacing, or reproducing a driver license, temporary license or learner's license." The student pilot also had two vehicle accidents on his driving record, although fault for the accidents was not noted.