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On May 6, 2011, at 2328 eastern daylight time, a special light sport Czech Sport Aircraft AS Piper Sport, N420PS, was substantially damaged when it impacted wooded terrain in Spring Hill, Florida. The certificated commercial pilot was fatally injured. Night visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the flight from Page Field (FMY), Fort Myers, Florida, to Joliet Regional Airport (JOT), Joliet, Illinois. The positioning flight was conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.
According to information from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the airplane departed Fort Myers at 2213. The pilot subsequently received flight following from Tampa Approach Control, and was advised to contact Jacksonville Center, which the pilot acknowledged. There were no further transmissions from the pilot.
Radar data indicated that at 2327:53, the airplane was proceeding northbound, over a residential area at 6,500 feet. At 2327:57, the altitude readout was 6,400 feet. At 2328:02, the altitude readout was 6,000 feet, indicating an average rate of descent of about 4,800 feet per minute (fpm) during the previous 5 seconds. The next and final altitude readout occurred at 2328:11, at 3,500 feet, indicating an average rate of descent in excess of 16,000 fpm during the previous 9 seconds. Altitude readouts then ceased; however, there were several additional "skin paint" radar returns, including two to the northeast of the original track that led to the airplane's impact site.
There were no radar returns from any other objects in the vicinity of the airplane while it was en route at 6,500 feet.
According to a witness who was about 1/3 mile southeast of the airplane's impact site, he saw what he thought was a helicopter "spiraling" towards the ground. He then saw a "red burst" and smoke. He went inside a building to inform others of the crash, and when he went back outside, he heard another "boom." The witness did not note an in-flight fire.
The low-wing, two-seat aluminum airplane was powered by a single, 100-horsepower Rotax 912ULS engine. Flight control surfaces were moved via conventional rudder pedals and a flight control stick in front of each seat.
Over -wing access to the two seats was via a front-hinged bubble canopy, and behind the seats was an elevated area that could accommodate up to 40 pounds of baggage or cargo.
The canopy was latched by a T-handle located in the center divider that pivoted from near shoulder height when unlatched to approximately elbow height when latched. There was one cam latch on each side of the canopy.
Two headset communications jacks were located on either side of the canopy T-handle.
Occupants were secured in their seats by four-point harnesses with one airframe attachment point on each side of the seat for the seat belt portions of the harness, and one airframe attachment point aft of the seat for both harness risers.
Each riser and each seat belt portion of the harness had similar adjustment hardware (total of four), consisting of two metal parts covered by plastic. One of the metal parts was rectangular in shape with a rectangular hole in it, and with belt material then attached to it on one end, and the airframe and the airframe on the other (directly in the case of seat belt portions, and through a common link for the risers.) The other metal part was U-shaped, and allowed the other part of the riser to slide through it in order to adjust riser tightness.
The airplane was equipped with a glass cockpit and autopilot, and with a Ballistic Recovery Systems (BRS) whole-airplane parachute system that included an arming pin and handle located on a vertical subpanel below the main instrument panel and between the two seats.
The airplane was not approved for night operations; to be approved, it would have needed, among other things, instrument and interior lighting.
The airplane was registered to a limited liability company with two principal owners. According to one of the owners, the airplane's logbooks were on the airplane during the accident flight, but he recalled that it had about 100 hours of total operating time, and an invoice indicated that it had an annual inspection on or about April 14, 2011. Both owners had homes in both Florida and Illinois, and the pilot was ferrying it back to Illinois. The airplane was carrying some of the owners' golf equipment, along with some of the pilot's personal items.
The pilot's logbook was not recovered. FAA records indicated the pilot, age 23, held a commercial pilot certificate with ratings for single engine and multi-engine land airplanes, and instrument-airplane. He also held a flight instructor certificate for single engine and multi-engine airplanes, and instrument-airplane. The pilot's latest FAA first class medical certificate was issued on March 14, 2011, and at the time, he reported 2,350 total flight hours.
According to one of the owners of the airplane, the pilot had provided flight instruction to both of them in the accident airplane, and had flown with one of them from Illinois to Florida the previous fall.
According to the pilot's father, the pilot was at a positive place in his life, with a young daughter, and he was engaged to be married. The pilot's father also advised detectives that his son had no history of mental illness, never attempted to hurt himself in the past, and took no medications.
One of the principal owners of the airplane stated that, on the day of the accident, he picked up the pilot at JOT somewhere around 1200 or 1300, and drove him to Chicago Midway Airport, where the pilot boarded a commercial flight to the international airport in Fort Myers, Florida. Upon arrival at Fort Myers, a friend of the owner picked up the pilot, delivered the pilot to the hangar at FMY where the airplane was kept "about 1 hour or so" before the flight.
The owner also stated that when he picked up the pilot at JOT, he asked him if he'd like to stay at the hangar overnight, which had lodging facilities, or he could also provide a hotel room, if the pilot preferred. The pilot declined, stating that he had gotten a very good night's sleep the previous evening, and that he had even slept away from the baby. The owner further observed the pilot to be in "his usual good mood, with his infectious smile" when he saw him.
The owner also stated that he spoke to the pilot twice more after he arrived in Florida, once being when he and the driver got lost on their way to FMY, and both times the pilot seemed upbeat. The owner also noted that the driver who picked up the pilot in Florida also offered him a room to stay at her home, but he declined.
Weather, recorded at an airport about 1 nautical mile to the east, at 2353, included calm winds, clear skies, and 7 statute miles visibility.
According to U.S. Naval Observatory data, a waxing crescent moon, with 11 percent of the visible disk illuminated, set at 2324.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
The airplane impacted the ground in the vicinity of 28 degrees, 28.08 minutes north latitude, 082 degrees, 29.10 minutes west longitude. There was a post-crash fire, and the majority of the wreckage, except for the tail section, exhibited extensive fire and impact damage. The tail section did not exhibit any fore-to-aft soot streaks that would have been consistent with an in-flight fire.
Positions of the major components and airframe crush patterns were consistent with an almost vertical, nose-down, slightly inverted ground impact. All flight control surfaces or their remnants were accounted for at the scene. The leading edges of the wings were mostly burnt away, and the leading edges of the horizontal stabilizer and rudder did not reveal any evidence of bird strike. The engine and propeller exhibited signatures consistent with the presence of engine power at impact.
Organic glass (transparent plastic) canopy shards were found at the crash site, but in much smaller quantities than normally comprise the canopy and rear side windows. Portions of the canopy frame were identified, as were the two front-mounted gas struts that lightened the canopy and kept it in the opened position on the ground. Only one of the two canopy cam latch studs was located, and although it exhibited evidence of fire, it was not distorted. The sliding fabric sunscreens, normally mounted toward the rear, interior side of the canopy, were also found at the crash site.
No organic glass shards were found or reported as found in the residential area where the pilot and personal items were located.
The BRS activation handle was found by itself without the safety pin installed. Handle ring and safety pin were also located in the wreckage, with the pin mostly melted. The BRS firing pin was found still inserted into the firing mechanism; however, the drogue chute had been partially deployed at the accident site, consistent with the firing charge having been "cooked off" during the post-crash fire.
Very few pieces of the pilot's restraint harness were initially found in the wreckage after its removal from the accident site. A return to the site and digging to a depth of about 4 feet yielded a few more pieces. Notable pieces included one seatbelt buckle without a receiver; however, it could not be determined which seat the buckle came from. Another item was one of the harness adjustment mechanisms. The "U" portion of the mechanism was partially pulled through the rectangular hole of the other portion, and remnants of belt material that remained on both parts of the mechanism appeared to be under tensional pull.
Also found was the aft harness airframe connection point from behind the pilot's seat with harness material still partially attached. The airframe bulkhead aft the pilot's seat was also recovered, with a patch of seatbelt harness melted onto it.
The pilot was found at a location separate from the airplane, about 800 feet laterally, 125 degrees true from the last altitude-encoded (3,500-foot) radar position, and about 600 feet east of the airplane's northern track. The pilot's location was also about 1,800 feet, 250 degrees true from the airplane's impact site.
Beginning about 500 feet south of the location of the pilot, there was a narrow debris field that extended from near the airplane's northbound track, eastbound, for about 3,000 feet. Heavier items, including a flashlight, a broken battery and an energy drink were located closer to the airplane's northbound track, while lighter items, including a plastic cover, head set, papers, clothing and a pillow were located progressively farther away.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
An autopsy was performed on the pilot at the Florida District Five Medical Examiner Office, Leesburg, Florida, the report stating that the cause of death was "multiple blunt force injuries." Toxicological testing was subsequently performed by the FAA Toxicology Research Team, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with no anomalies noted.
In the autopsy report, the medical examiner noted a 3- by 2-inch squared abrasion on top of the pilot's left shoulder, and a 2- by 1-inch "patchy" abrasion on top of the pilot's right shoulder.
A review of on-scene photographs of the pilot revealed that he was wearing a round-neck, long-sleeve pull-over. The bottom became rolled up to just under the pilot's armpits. Those photographs, plus autopsy photographs, showed the outline of an approximately ¾- to 1-inch-wide, horizontally-oriented light bruising just under the pilot's rib cage that extended from the pilot's left side to his right. However, there were no indications of any significant bruising or abrasions in the center, where a harness might have been buckled.
Autopsy photographs further revealed that with the pilot's shirt removed, there appeared to be light abrasions in a circle around his neck in the same approximate position as the collar of his pull-over. There was also another horizontal bruise from armpit to armpit. In addition, beginning at the top of the pilot's left shoulder, and extending forward, there were two distinct abrasion lines an estimated several inches in length. In the same vicinity, but at the top of the left shoulder only, was a lighter and wider area of abrasion. On top of the pilot's right shoulder, there was at least one distinct abrasion line in the same general direction as those on the left shoulder, and smaller abrasion areas in relatively the same position as the left shoulder. The abrasion areas on both shoulders appeared to be about 1 to 2 inches from the pilot's neck.
TESTING AND RESEARCH
On March 29, 2012, an NTSB investigator the same height as the accident pilot sat in an exemplar, stationary airplane and donned the restraint harness, varying the degree of harness tightness and whether the lap belt portion was buckled or not. Numerous position variations revealed that, with the harness risers loosened and lap belt portion unbuckled, the approximate abrasion marks found on the accident pilot could be duplicated with the volunteer leaning forward and pulling himself upward. The marks could not be duplicated with the risers cinched tightly.
The volunteer also attempted to reach toward the back baggage area, and in order to facilitate doing so, had to unbuckle the lap belt part of the harness and loosen the harness risers. He also found that when he turned to his right and reached toward the back, that his left leg extended and pushed the left rudder, and that the control stick then moved to the right. Also noted, was that when the volunteer turned right to reach toward the back, the loosened right harness riser adjusting mechanism moved to the same approximate position as the canopy release lever would have been in the closed position. Also noted, was that the proximity of the headset jacks to the T-handle could have allowed the pilot's headset communication wires to loop around it.
Although the airplane was sold under the Piper name, Piper Aircraft Company declined to assist in the investigation. Instead, U.S. Sport Aircraft, the current U.S. importer of the airplane, provided assistance.
The Pilot's Operating Handbook, Supplement 03, issued September 2010, addresses inadvertent canopy opening during takeoff, and notes that during "horizontal" flight at 60 to 80 knots, the canopy stays open 2 to 3.2 inches. It also noted that "there are no flight problems, no vibrations, good aircraft control, and no change of flight characteristics. It is not possible to close the canopy."
The Supplement also states, again referring to takeoff, "DO NOT TRY TO CLOSE THE CANOPY!" It then states that maximum airspeed is 75 knots, and to land.
The Supplement further states, "Recommendation: - Before takeoff, manually check the canopy is locked by pushing on the canopy upwards," and, "CAUTION - During the flight, approach and landing – do not perform any slipping."
A video, located at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGv0JqKJse4, reveals that the canopy can open greater than 3.2 inches in flight.