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On April 10, 2011, about 1445 eastern daylight time, a LET L33 Solo, N286BA, operated by the Blue Ridge Soaring Society (BRSS), was substantially damaged when it impacted terrain shortly after taking off from New Castle International Airport (VA85), New Castle, Virginia. The certificated private pilot was fatally injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed. No flight plan had been filed for the local personal flight, conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.
The glider was being towed aloft by the Society's Intermountain Callair A-9, and according to the tow plane pilot, it was his fourth tow of the day. Winds were about 8 mph from the south with clear skies and good visibility. During the ground roll and takeoff, everything felt "normal." However, shortly after takeoff, the tow pilot noted that they were not climbing as expected or as seen during the previous tows that day. He checked his instruments and saw no problems with the engine.
The tow pilot then saw that the glider was "way out of position," and could also see the red air brake baffle paint, indicating that the glider's air brakes were open. The tow pilot immediately made a radio call to the glider pilot to alert him of the problem, but received no response.
By that time, the glider was well off to the left and below the tow plane, and was pulling the tow plane's tail down, toward an angle of attack close to a stall. Looking over his left shoulder, the tow pilot could see that the glider's air brakes were still open. He came close to releasing the tow, but decided to keep dragging the glider toward some emergency landing fields. As he continued, the tow pilot felt a "huge pull" aft, and the tow rope broke.
According to a witness who lived in a home on the east side of the runway, she was looking out a window when she first saw the glider just after it lifted off under tow. The wings were “wobbling back and forth,…the tips were going up and down,” and she didn't think the glider would clear trees of the end of the runway, it was so low. The witness became so concerned that she said out loud, “release, release.” She continued to watch the glider as it proceeded to the south, flying "very erratically, back and forth." She then saw the glider climb at "fairly steep" angle until the tow line broke. The glider then rolled and was in a steep decent when she lost sight of it behind the trees.
A pilot, who was inbound to the airport, about 1,300 feet above the runway, reported that he observed the takeoff because he heard the tow plane pilot announce his takeoff intentions. The pilot noted that after the takeoff, the glider was so far out to the left from its normal tow position that he assumed it was off tow. However, he later noticed both the tow plane and the glider flying erratically, like an "aerial ballet," and heard the tow plane pilot "transmit something with urgency."
The pilot later saw the glider pull away from the tow plane and clear a row of trees. The left wing dropped, the nose of the glider dipped, and the glider entered a spin. The nose of the glider pointed vertically downward, and the glider impacted the ground with no forward motion.
Another pilot, who was on the ground, first saw the glider when it was left and well below the tow plane. After observing the tow for 1 or 2 seconds, he saw the tow plane turn slightly to the left, and as it did so, the glider pitched up abruptly to the right. The glider climbed until it was level and to the right of the tow plane, then appeared to level. It released from the tow plane, and began a gentle left turn. After passing through the original heading, the right wing dropped and the glider disappeared behind a tree line in a stall/spin.
A fifth witness assisted the pilot in preparing for the launch. He noted that the glider had not been assembled that morning, but had previously been assembled or "quite a while." He also noted that the pilot had conducted the preflight inspection.
When asked how the pilot appeared prior to the flight, the witness stated that they had driven down the runway together, that he was chatting and "seemed perfectly normal."
The witness further noted that prior to takeoff, he assisted the pilot in performing a positive control check, in which the pilot provided control inputs, and the witness provided pressure against the control surfaces in the opposite direction. They first tested the right aileron, then the right air brake, then the elevator, followed by the left air brake and the left aileron. The pilot then got into the glider.
After the glider and tow plane were in position for takeoff, the witness walked to a wingtip, raised his hand, and the tow pilot took the slack out of the tow rope. The glider pilot then gave a thumbs-up, and the tow plane began the takeoff roll. The initial part of the tow looked normal; there was a little bit of crosswind, and the pilot responded with a "little rudder." However, about half way down the runway, the witness noticed that one wing dropped, then the other. The glider subsequently "zoomed up" above tree level, at which point the witness thought the tow rope broke, before descending below the trees.
The witness further noted that while on the ground, he did not see the pilot use the radio.
An aircraft logbook entry indicated that the glider's latest annual inspection occurred on September 18, 2010, at a total time of 1,106 hours. The BRSS daily flight log indicated that that the last flight before the accident flight occurred on April 3, 2011.
According to multiple sources, the glider had remained assembled on the airport.
The pilot, age 69, held a private pilot certificate with a glider rating. Logbook excerpts together with the pilot's application for his airman's certificate indicated about 90 hours of total flight time, all in gliders. The pilot did not have an FAA medical certificate nor was one required.
Additional excerpts from the pilot's logbook indicated that he completed a biennial flight review on October 2, 2010, and a "club check" on April 3, 2011. According to the certificated flight instructor who conducted the club check, the accident pilot was above average in "boxing the wake," and during the remainder of the flight, "displayed good situational awareness, airspeed selections and speed control, as well as maintaining coordinated flight."
The airport included a single turf runway, 18/36, that was 2,400 feet long and 100 feet wide. Airport elevation was 1,320 feet.
The nearest recorded weather information was located at Roanoke Regional Airport, about 12 nautical miles the southeast on the other side of a mountain range. Weather there, recorded at 1454, included a few clouds at 5,000 feet, visibility 10 statute miles, and winds from 100 degrees true at 7 knots. Airport elevation was 1,175 feet.
According to the responding Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspector, all flight control surfaces were accounted for at the scene; however, due to the extent of the damage, only limited flight control continuity verification could be accomplished. No preexisting mechanical anomalies were noted. The inspector also noted that the onboard radio was "on" when he looked in the cockpit.
Photographs revealed that the majority of the broken tow rope arrived at the accident scene with the glider, and that it was broken in the vicinity of the weak link nearest the tow plane.
On October 6, 2011, the NTSB investigator in charge examined the wreckage at a storage facility in New Castle. The wings had been detached from the fuselage for storage.
Control continuity within both wings to all wing control surfaces was confirmed. Both ailerons could be moved freely. Bent wing metal initially precluded the movement of one of the air brakes; however, once that was moved, both air brakes also moved freely.
The nose of the glider was aft-crushed at an angle consistent with an approximately 60- to 70-degrees nose down attitude at impact. The control stick inside the cockpit was jammed by displaced metal from aft-crushed nose. The leather boot cover at the base of the control stick was removed and the area below it was found to be free of foreign object debris. The interior furnishings were then removed to reveal all flight controls; after being detached from the jammed control stick, control continuity was confirmed within the fuselage to the elevator and rudder, and to all wing flight control attachment points. Also confirmed, was that both fuselage air brake controls actuated in tandem.
MEDICAL AND TOXICOLOGICAL INFORMATION
An autopsy was performed on the pilot by the Commonwealth of Virginia, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Roanoke, Virginia, with the stated cause of death as "multiple blunt force injuries." The autopsy also noted the presence of arteriolonephrosclerosis.
Subsequent toxicological testing was performed by the FAA Forensic Toxicology Research Team, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, which detected ranitidine and valsartan in blood and urine samples. According to the National Institute of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine, ranitidine is used to prevent and treat symptoms heartburn, and valsartan is used to treat high blood pressure.
According to the NTSB Chief Medical Officer review, "both ranitidine and valsartan are acceptable to the FAA for airman use in the absence of side effects or complications from the underlying diseases for which they were prescribed."
The pilot's personal physician confirmed that the pilot had been prescribed valsartan for high blood pressure and ranitidine for acid reflux, along with flunisolide for allergies. He further noted that the pilot had also been prescribed a diuretic, bumetanide, to aid in lowering the pilot's blood pressure. However, during his last visit, on March 30, 2011, the pilot complained of lightheadedness and daily twitching of the left cheek along with a small part of the muscles of both arms for durations lasting several seconds. The pilot's physician attributed the symptoms to the effects of the bumetanide, and directed the pilot to stop taking it. He also advised the pilot to let him know if the symptoms persisted, and through his experience with the pilot, felt that he would have done so had the symptoms continued.