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On July 25, 2011, at 1900 eastern daylight time, a Piper PA28-180, N1279T, was substantially damaged during collision with trees and terrain while maneuvering near Berne, New York. The certificated private pilot/owner was fatally injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the flight that departed Griffiss International Airport (RME), Rome, New York, at 1820, and was destined for South Bethlehem Airport (4B0), Albany, New York. The personal flight was conducted under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 91.
Witnesses near the site described hearing an airplane “low to the ground” as it approached them. They said it was in a left-wing-low attitude just prior to striking trees and disappearing from view. One witness said the engine was “really loud” and that the airplane appeared just above the trees, and just beneath the clouds that were “right on top of the trees.
The New York State Police dispatched a helicopter to the scene immediately after the accident. According to the pilot, he approached the scene about 1,500 feet mean sea level, and chose to abort the mission about one-quarter mile prior to the crash site due to weather conditions. He said, "We were unable to access a position directly over the scene due to rising terrain and low clouds."
Prior to returning to base, the pilot took photographs of the clouds that obscured the trees and terrain that surrounded the crash site.
According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records, the pilot held a private pilot certificate with a rating for airplane single-engine land. He did not possess an instrument rating. A review of his logbook revealed that he last logged an entry December 12, 2009, and had accrued 153 total hours of flight experience as of that date. His most recent third class medical certificate was issued in November 2008.
According to FAA and maintenance records, the airplane was manufactured in 1972, and was registered to a corporation in October 2008. It was a four-place, low wing, single-engine airplane, with fixed landing gear. According to the airplane’s maintenance records, the most recent annual inspection was completed on April 27, 2011, at 2,872.6 total aircraft hours.
At 1851, the weather conditions reported at Albany International Airport (ALB), at 285 feet elevation, about 12 miles northeast of the accident site, included winds from 170 at 13 knots gusting to 20 knots. There were few clouds at 1,500 feet, a scattered layer at 6,500 feet, and a broken ceiling at 9,000 feet. Visibility was 10 miles; the temperature was 21 degrees C, the dewpoint 17 degrees C, and the altimeter setting was 29.78 inches of mercury.
According to an NTSB Senior Meteorologist, the observations from ALB indicated several layers of clouds with some potential marginal visual meteorological conditions due to low scud clouds. GOES-13 satellite images showed the accident site obscured by multiple cloud layers.
The wreckage was examined at the site, and all major components were accounted for at the scene. The wreckage path was approximately 300 feet in length, and oriented 355 degrees magnetic, which was approximately opposite the intended direction of flight. The airplane collided with flat, wooded terrain near the top of a ridgeline about 1,500 feet elevation.
The initial impact point was in small trees about 25 feet above the ground. Fragments of both wings and pieces associated with the left horizontal stabilizer, as well as the cabin roof, were scattered in the trees and out into a clearing where the airplane first contacted the ground. The initial ground scar was about 150 feet beyond the initial impact point. The wreckage path continued into a tree line another 150 feet where the main wreckage came to rest. The fuselage came to rest upright, with the engine and propeller still attached. The airplane’s roof, both wings, both main landing gear, and the left horizontal stabilator were all separated at their respective roots. The right horizontal stabilator was still attached, but bent in the aft direction. Control continuity could not be established due to multiple fractures and cable separations. Examination of the cable and bellcrank revealed fractures consistent with overload failure.
Examination of the two-bladed propeller revealed similar twisting, bending, leading-edge gouging, and chordwise scratching of both blades.
The top four spark plugs were removed. The electrodes were intact, ashen in color, and showed no abnormal wear. The engine was rotated by hand at the propeller flange, and continuity was established through the powertrain to the valvetrain and the accessory section. Compression was confirmed in all cylinders using the thumb method. The magnetos were removed, rotated by hand and electric drill, and spark was produced at all towers.
The oil filter was removed, the case was opened, and no evidence of debris or contaminants was noted.
The carburetor was still intact and attached to the engine, but the mixture and throttle positions could not be determined due to impact damage. The throttle lever was actuated at the carburetor, and fuel flowed from the venturi. The carburetor was removed and disassembled. Fuel was present in the bowl, with no debris or contaminants noted. Examination of the carburetor revealed no internal impact-related damage or mechanical anomaly.
The vacuum pump was removed, rotated by hand, and negative and positive pressures were produced at the intake and output ports respectively.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
The Saint Peter's Bender Laboratory, Department of Pathology, Albany, New York, performed the autopsy on the pilot. The autopsy revealed "fatal head injuries and several other injuries…Autopsy revealed no pre-existing conditions which would have contributed to the crash or the death.”
The FAA Bioaeronautical Sciences Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, performed forensic toxicology on specimens from the pilot. No carbon monoxide, cyanide, ethanol, or drugs were detected in the specimens tested.
TESTS AND RESEARCH
A hand-held GPS device was recovered from the wreckage, and forwarded to the NTSB Recorders Laboratory in Washington, DC. Examination of the unit, and a conversation with the manufacturer revealed that the device did not record tracklog data, and that no useful information could be recovered from the device.
According to Lockheed Martin Quality Assurance, the pilot did not obtain a weather briefing, file a flight plan, or request any other preflight services. A search of on-line flight service vendors revealed that the pilot did not request services from them.