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On April 3, 2011, about 0715 Pacific daylight time, a Piper PA-28RT-201, N355LC, collided with terrain near Cherry Valley, California. The pilot/owner was operating the airplane under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91. The private pilot sustained fatal injuries; the airplane sustained substantial damage to the entire airframe from impact forces and a post crash fire. The cross-country personal flight departed Banning, California, at an undetermined time, with a planned destination of Redlands, California. Visual meteorological conditions (VMC) prevailed at the nearest official weather reporting station, and no flight plan had been filed.
Witnesses near the accident site reported hearing the airplane at low level, but could not see it because of low clouds. They reported that the visibility was 1 mile or less in fog or heavy mist, and that the clouds were touching the tops of the ridgelines in the hilly terrain. They stated that the engine sounded like it was operating normally, and the sounds stayed the same until they abruptly stopped. A witness less than 1 mile away heard a heavy impact and the engine sounds stop, but did not see the fireball as the mountains blocked her view. A witness about 4 miles away did not hear the impact, but observed a fireball when the engine sounds stopped.
The March Air Force Base (RIV) air traffic control tower provided the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) accident coordinator with a summary from the radar recordings during the accident time frame. There were no VFR targets (squawking 1200) observed except the mishap airplane during this time period. Time source was direct-coded GPS as part of STARS.
The first target associated with the accident airplane appeared at 0707 PDT; it was 13 miles northeast of RIV at 3,300 feet mean sea level (msl). This was in the Banning Pass area, and the target was traveling west-northwest.
Between 0707 and 0714, the target made multiple tight right and left turns. The mode C reported altitude varied from a high of 3,900 feet to 2,500 feet msl. The mode C altitude was dropped from several targets due to low altitude.
Beginning at 0714:03, the target made a tight right turn at 3,700 feet msl. As the tight right turn continued, the altitude indicated 3,500 feet at 0714:08, and 3,200 feet at 0714:12. At 0714:19, the mode C altitude was not available and the secondary beacon code dropped. They lost radar contact at 0714:23 in the vicinity of 33° 58.88’ north latitude and 117° 00.45’ west longitude. The approximate heading was 010-030 degrees.
A review of FAA airman records revealed that the 81-year-old pilot held a private pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine land and multiengine land. The pilot possessed a third-class medical certificate issued on March 23, 2010. It had the limitations that the pilot must wear corrective lenses for near and distant vision. He attained his multiengine rating on February 18, 2010.
No personal flight records were located for the pilot. The IIC obtained the aeronautical experience listed in this report from a review of the FAA airmen medical records on file in the Airman and Medical Records Center located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The pilot reported on his medical application that he had a total time of 2,100 hours.
The airplane was a Piper PA-28RT-201, serial number 28R-8118035. A review of the airplane’s logbooks revealed that the airplane had a total airframe time of 3,514 hours at the last annual inspection dated January 1, 2011.
The engine was a Lycoming IO-360-C1C6, serial number RL-9435-51A. Total time recorded on the engine at the last annual inspection was 3,443.1 hours, and time since major overhaul was 86.6 hours.
The closest official weather observation station was March Air Force Base, Riverside, California (KRIV), which was 15 nautical miles (nm) southwest of the accident site. The elevation of the weather observation station was 1,536 feet mean sea level (msl). An aviation routine weather report (METAR) for KRIV was issued at 0655 PDT. It stated: wind calm; visibility 10 miles; sky 1,800 feet overcast; temperature 12/54 degrees Celsius/Fahrenheit; dew point 11/52 degrees Celsius/Fahrenheit; altimeter 29.98 inches of mercury.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
Investigators examined the accident site, which was in the foothills of mountainous terrain. The debris field was on a north-south ridge as it rose toward an east-west primary ridgeline with a road on top of it. The main debris field went downhill on the west slope of the ridge. A portion of the right wing with part of the aileron attached, the remainder of the right aileron, and the aileron balance weight were on top of the ridge crest, which was left of the debris path centerline.
The first identified point of contact (FIPC) was a ground scar that was a few inches wide at the beginning. About 3 feet forward of the FIPC in the direction of the debris field were green lens fragments. The initial ground scar expanded to about 1-foot for about 20 feet; it ended at the edge of the principal impact crater (PIC). The PIC was about 20 feet long and 10 feet wide. One propeller blade separated, and was in the center of the PIC. The blade bent aft at the fracture point; the fracture surface was angular and jagged with a shear lip. The debris path continued slightly downslope, and the main wreckage came to rest about 180 feet from the FIPC. Both flaps separated and were midway into the debris field.
The main wreckage consisted of the engine, fuselage, left wing, and empennage. The cabin was severely damaged and twisted; it fragmented and was partially consumed by fire. It came to rest at 33° 58.60’ north latitude and 117° 00.63’ west longitude, at an estimated elevation of 2,800 feet.
The engine separated from the airframe, but was in its relative position in front of the cabin. It came to rest in an upright position.
Investigators identified all control surfaces at the accident site.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
The Riverside County Coroner completed an autopsy, and ruled the cause of death as multiple blunt impact injuries. The FAA Forensic Toxicology Research Team, Oklahoma City, performed toxicological testing of specimens of the pilot.
Analysis of the specimens for the pilot contained no findings for volatiles or tested drugs. They did not perform tests for carbon monoxide or cyanide.
TESTS AND RESEARCH
The IIC and investigators from the FAA, Lycoming, and Piper examined the wreckage at Aircraft Recovery Service, Littlerock, California, on April 7, 2011. Detailed examination notes are in the public docket. They identified no mechanical anomalies with the airframe or engine that would have precluded normal operation.
The fuel selector valve was not identified.
The cockpit flight controls for the aileron, elevator, and rudder sustained multiple disconnects. All fracture surfaces were jagged, angular, or in a broomstraw pattern.
The left wing sustained aft accordion crush damage to the spar. The spar bent aft about midspan.
The outboard 8 feet of the right wing and a 4-foot section of the right aileron separated. The right wing tip exhibited aft crush damage.
The flap cable remained attached to the flap handle. The flap handle assembly separated from the airframe, and flap position could not be determined. The left and right flap separated.
The elevator trim measured three threads; the Piper investigator determined that this equated to a neutral position.
Investigators removed the spark plugs. All spark plugs were clean with no mechanical deformation. The spark plug electrodes were circular and gray, which corresponded to normal operation according to the Champion Aviation Check-A-Plug AV-27 Chart.
A borescope inspection revealed no mechanical deformation on the valves, cylinder walls, or internal cylinder head. There was no evidence of detonation or foreign object ingestion.
Investigators manually rotated the crankshaft with the propeller. The crankshaft rotated freely, and the valves moved approximately the same amount of lift in firing order. The gears in the accessory case turned freely. Investigators obtained thumb compression in proper firing order on all cylinders.