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On August 5, 2010, about 1425 Pacific daylight time, a Piper PA-24-260C, N9365P, was substantially damaged during an off-airport forced landing near Ridgecrest, California. The private pilot received minor injuries. The flight was operated under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the personal flight.
According to the pilot, he departed Gnoss Field (DVO), Novato, California, with all four fuel tanks completely full, for a total quantity of 90 gallons. The pilot's first planned fuel stop was about 500 miles away, at Needles Airport (EED), Needles, California. The pilot selected a cruise altitude of 9,500 feet above mean sea level (msl). During the first 3 hours of the flight, the pilot alternately switched between using the left and right main fuel tanks at approximate 1-hour intervals. He stated that he used the left main tank for the first hour, then the right main, and then the left main again. At the start of the fourth hour, the pilot switched to the right main tank again, and after an undetermined period of time, he then "tried to go to the left auxiliary" fuel tank. However, the fuel quantity gauge did not indicate that there was fuel in the left auxiliary tank, so the pilot tried the right auxiliary tank. He observed the same anomaly with the quantity indication for that auxiliary tank, and consequently returned the selector valve to the right main tank.
Since the pilot suspected a problem with the fuel quantity indication system, he attempted to tighten a screw that he believed was related to that problem. He did not recall how long he attempted to rectify the problem, but at some point while he was engaged in that task, the engine started "missing and coughing," and subsequently ceased developing power. The airplane entered a descent from its cruise altitude. The pilot made several attempts to restart the engine as the airplane descended, but was unsuccessful. The pilot determined that a forced landing on the desert terrain below was imminent, and elected to conduct the approach and landing with the flaps and landing gear retracted.
Although the pilot was not in radio communication with air traffic controllers when he experienced the fuel problems, the airplane was being tracked by ground-based radar and monitored by controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) High Desert TRACON facility. The FAA controllers noticed the airplane's descent, and the last radar return from the airplane, was acquired about 1424. Since the airplane had entered a military restricted area, FAA personnel coordinated with military personnel to advise them of the situation. The pilot and airplane were subsequently located by military aerial searchers about 45 minutes after the airplane was last observed on FAA radar. The airplane was located on flat desert terrain, with an elevation of about 3,000 feet msl.
According to FAA information, the pilot, age 82, held a private pilot certificate with an airplane single engine land rating. His most recent flight review was completed in January 2009, and his most recent FAA third-class medical certificate was issued in January 2010. According to the pilot, he had about 2,400 total hours of flight experience in the accident airplane make and model.
A review of the pilot's personal flight logbook indicated that in the 7 months prior to the accident, the pilot had logged 4 flights, with a total flight time of 4.7 hours. His most recent flight occurred about 7 weeks prior to the accident, and the pilot recorded its duration as 1.1 hours.
In the Recommendation section of his accident report to the National Transportation Safety Board, the pilot stated that as a means of preventing the accident, "fuel management should have been" accomplished in accordance with the procedures specified in the Pilot's Operating Handbook (POH). According to an FAA inspector, the pilot voluntarily surrendered his pilot certificate after the accident, with the intent that he would not pilot an airplane again.
FAA information indicated that the airplane was manufactured in 1969, and was registered to the pilot in 1995. It was equipped with a Lycoming TIO-540 series engine.
The airplane was equipped with two inboard (main) fuel tanks, each of which held 28 gallons of usable fuel, and two outboard (auxiliary) tanks, each of which held 15 gallons of usable fuel. The fuel selector valve had five selection positions; one for fuel OFF, and one for each of the four fuel tanks.
The airplane was equipped with a single fuel quantity gauge, which normally registered the quantity in the tank that was selected. The fuel selector plate was equipped with a button at each of the four tank positions. An override system allowed the pilot to check the fuel quantity in a non-selected tank by depressing the corresponding button in the fuel selector plate. A fuel flow gauge, graduated in gallons per hour (gph), was mounted in the right-hand instrument panel, next to the fuel quantity gauge.
The airplane manufacturer's Pilot Operating Handbook (POH) stated that the normal recommended economy cruise setting was 65% power. According to the cruise performance data in the POH, at 9,500 feet density altitude, 2,400 rpm, and a weight of 3,200 pounds, the airplane would have a true airspeed of approximately 183 mph. For the same conditions, an airplane equipped with auxiliary tanks would have a range of approximately 1,225 miles, and an endurance of approximately 6.7 hours. Division of the usable fuel quantity value by the endurance value (88/6.7) yielded a calculated average POH fuel consumption rate of approximately 13 gph.
The POH stated that auxiliary tanks were to be used in level flight only, and that pilots should leave sufficient fuel in one main tank for use during maneuvering and landing. The POH also stated that the "fuel should be used alternately from each tank. If auxiliary fuel tanks are installed, it is suggested that fuel in the two auxiliary tanks be used first."
The investigation was unable to locate the maintenance records for the airplane. According to the pilot, he believed that at the time of the accident, the maintenance records "were in a bag under the front passenger seat" of the airplane. The aircraft recovery personnel stated that they were unable to locate the maintenance records in the airplane. The FAA inspector reported that both the pilot and the pilot's wife had told the inspector that she would send the maintenance records to the inspector. The FAA inspector reported that he never received the maintenance records for the airplane. Multiple searches of the airplane by NTSB and other personnel, and repeated inquiries of the pilot, failed to produce the maintenance records.
At the time of the accident, the tachometer in the airplane registered 4,477.14 hours, and the hour meter registered 4,583.3 hours. An entry in the pilot's flight log indicated that on May 18, 2010, the engine was operated for 0.2 hours, and the word "annual" was hand-written in the "Remarks and Endorsements" column as part of that entry.
The 1456 automated weather observation at China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station (NID), located about 25 miles north-northwest of the accident site, included winds from 180 degrees at 7 knots with gusts to 21 knots; 10 miles visibility; clear skies; temperature 40 degrees C; dew point -4 degrees C; and an altimeter setting of 29.79 inches of mercury.
The pilot stated that during the initial portion of the flight he did contact air traffic control (ATC) for flight-following services. At some undetermined point while in cruise, the pilot voluntarily terminated the flight-following services.
According to data from a commercial flight tracking website (which obtained the data from the FAA), the airplane was first acquired by ground-based radar at 1147, at an indicated altitude of 8,100 feet msl. The last radar target was acquired at 1414, when the airplane was at an indicated altitude of 4,300 feet msl.
Examination of radar tracking data indicated that after departure from DVO, the airplane headed to the southeast, and made two excursions to the northeast before it resumed a southeast track parallel to the western edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Approximately 80 miles north of Bakersfield, the flight turned south, and then turned east-southeast about 40 miles north of Bakersfield. The accident site was located about 20 miles inside the northwest border of Restricted Area 2515. According to United States government-published aeronautical charts, Restricted Area 2515 was in effect on a continuous basis, and had an unlimited ceiling. The aeronautical charts listed Joshua Approach as the controlling agency/contact facility, and provided a frequency for air to ground radio communications. The pilot did not communicate or attempt to communicate with Joshua Approach during the cruise or descent portions of the flight.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
An FAA inspector traveled to the accident site the day after the event to examine the airplane. According to information provided by the inspector, the landing gear remained retracted, and the airplane remained upright and relatively intact. One propeller blade was bent aft about 70 degrees at its midspan point, and the other one was bent aft about 10 degrees at its 2/3 span point. Neither blade bore any chordwise scratches. The lower cowl and forward fuselage exhibited deformation in the up/aft direction. The right wing exhibited crumpling at the leading and trailing edges at its 2/3 span point. The outer third of the left wing was crushed and deformed aft. The fuel tanks appeared to be intact. The outboard leading edge of the right stabilator was crumpled in the aft direction. The fuel selector was found set to the left main tank. Examination of the fuel tanks revealed that the left main fuel tank did not contain any fuel, and the auxiliary fuel tanks contained "some fuel." The inspector did not provide information regarding the presence or lack of fuel in the right main tank.