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On December 26, 2011, approximately 1415 eastern standard time, a Waco YMF5, N64JE, operated by Conch Air, was substantially damaged when it was ditched in the Atlantic Ocean following a loss of engine power near Marathon, Florida. The airplane had departed from the Marathon Airport (MTH), Marathon, Florida about 1345. Day visual meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plan had been filed. The Airline Transport rated pilot and the two passengers were not injured. The local sightseeing flight was conducted under the provision of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.
According to the pilot, the flight was the third flight of the day and the first two flights were 18 minutes each. Prior to the accident flight he checked the engine oil, looked at the fuel gauge located on the underside of both wings and determined that the tanks were about 7/8ths full, and "pulled the prop[eller] through four blades." He reported that he did not check the fuel sump prior to the flight. The flight departed MTH, headed south, climbed to 1,000 feet above ground level (agl), and flew to a nearby reef. While over the reef, he descended to 500 feet agl, banked to the right, circled the reef and a lighthouse, pitched the airplane to almost 30 degrees nose up attitude, banked to the left, climbed to 1,500 feet agl, and reduced power to 1700 rpm. Subsequently, the engine began to surge in power resulting in fluctuations in the engine rpm from 1400 to 2000 rpm. The pilot decided to enter an 80 knot profile and prepare the passengers for ditching. Approximately 500 feet agl the engine power returned to "almost takeoff power." During the flare the pilot added power and considered returning to the airport but felt committed to the ditching. The airplane impacted the water, decelerated, and then nosed over.
According to one of the passengers, following a turn toward the airport, the airplane's engine began "sputtering" and subsequently the airplane impacted the water.
The pilot, age 37, held an Airline Transport pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine land, multiengine land, helicopter, and instrument airplane and helicopter. His most recent application for a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) first-class medical certificate was issued on June 5, 2011. He reported 2,494 total hours of flight experience, of which, 12 total hours of flight experience were in the accident airplane make and model.
The airplane was manufactured in 1989. It was equipped with a Jacobs R755-B2M engine. The airplane's most recent 100 hour inspection was completed on September 26, 2011. At the time of the inspection, the reported aircraft time was 4,344.4 total hours and the recorded tachometer was 3850.2 hours. The most recent 50 hour inspection on the engine was completed on November 18, 2011 and the recorded time since overhaul was 1,025.4 hours. Two tachometers were located in the wreckage one indicated 3,932.9 hours and the other tachometer indicated 1,328.1 hours.
According to a representative of the airplane manufacturer, the accident airplane had four fuel tanks two on the left and two on the right, in relation to the longitudinal centerline of the airplane. The main fuel tanks were located over the main aircraft structure and forward of the pilot, the auxiliary tanks were located at the wing root, adjacent to the main tanks, and the fuel system was a gravity fed system. The main tank was interconnected with the associated auxiliary tank. The fuel system had approximately 2 gallons of unusable fuel and the fuel pickup ports were located on the forward and aft outboard portion of the main fuel tanks. Both tanks were controlled by the same fuel shuttle valve located in the cockpit. There were two fuel shutoff valves located in the cockpit; one controls the two right hand fuel tanks and the other controls the two left hand fuel tanks. According to the representative, the auxiliary and main fuel tank should be considered one fuel tank since there is no shutoff valve between them. It was stated that no matter which direction the pilot would maneuver the airplane, even in a low fuel state, fuel should still be available at one or the other main tanks fuel pickup point. However, if one tank was devoid of fuel and the other tank was in a critically low fuel level it would be possible to unport the fuel pickup and introduce air into the fuel system.
The 1353 recorded weather observation at MTH, included wind from 110 degrees at 7 knots, visibility 10 miles, few clouds at 2,100 feet above ground level, temperature 27 degrees C, dew point 21 degrees C; altimeter 30.11 inches of mercury.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
According to photographs provided by an FAA inspector who responded to the accident, the airplane impacted the water and nosed over. Following the recovery of the airplane from the water, an examination noted that the left lower wing tip was impact damaged on the outboard approximate 4 feet. The wood propeller was impact damaged approximately 3 feet from the propeller hub. Flight control continuity was confirmed to all flight control surfaces from the cockpit.
The salvage company had drained fuel from the fuel tanks and removed the wings from the airplane to facilitate transport; the instruments had been removed in an attempt to minimize the salt water damage to them. Approximately 20 gallons of fluid was removed from the left fuel tank and the right fuel tank was devoid of fluid. The fluid was allowed to separate revealing approximately 4 gallons of blue fluid similar in color to 100LL aviation fuel and the rest was consistent with salt water. The engine was pressure washed and the front sparkplugs were removed and corrosion preventer was applied to the inside of the cylinders and was then applied over the entire airplane to minimize salt water corrosion.
The aircraft engine was examined at a recovery facility on January 11, 2012. The engine remained attached to the airframe and the remaining propeller blades were attached to the engine. One propeller blade had a longitudinal split from the impact damaged tip to the hub; the other propeller blade was splintered along the outboard 14 inches. The engine had minimal amount of corrosion noted; however, corrosion did exist around the mating surface of the rear spark plugs as well as the mating surface for most attached accessories.
The front and rear spark plugs were removed from the cylinders the spark plugs located on the circumferential bottom of the engine were oil soaked but all the other spark plugs appeared to be normal in wear and color. The magnetos were removed; however, did not produce spark and exhibited corrosion similar to salt water corrosion. The carburetor was removed and was devoid of fuel; however, contained a substance similar to mineral spirits and salt combined. The brass floats appeared to have little or no damage and operated smoothly and normally. The venturi and needle valve remained in place and no damage was noted. The fuel screen was removed, was approximately 10 percent occluded with the same substance that was found in the carburetor bowl. Approximately 300 milliliters of fluid was removed from the fuel strainer, the fluid was translucent in appearance and was allowed to settle in the jar revealing sediment in the bottom, approximately 20 milliliters of blue fluid and the remainder appeared to be water. The strainer was removed and examined, the fuel screen was approximately 40 percent occluded with a similar material as was found in the carburetor.
The 4 gallons of blue fluid was examined, free of debris, and was similar in consistency with 100 LL fuel. According to the salvage company and the insurance adjuster, no other fuel was extracted from the airplane.
The cockpit area was examined; however, all the circuit breakers were pulled out and the master switches were in the "OFF" position. A placard was located on the mid section of the dash that stated "take off not recommended with less than 10 gal of fuel (yellow line on gauge) in tank selected" as well as one placard for each fuel tank indicated 36 gallons of usable fuel in each tank.
Both fuel quantity indicators were removed from both fuel main fuel tanks. The system comprises of a cork attached to the top of a wire, which ran through a hole and was connected on the other side to a float indicator which is located in a clear tube. Both indicators revealed approximately a 7/8ths full fuel level, even though no fuel was present within the tank. Examination of the wire revealed a slight bend; however, it could not be determined if the deformation was preimpact or as a result of the accident. Downward hand pressure applied to the cork and wire would allow the indicator to move to full down, or empty, position. Turning the indicator tube upside down allowed the cork to free fall to approximately the 7/8ths position, where it would remain when righted.
According to fuel records from a local fixed base operator (FBO), the operator had purchased 93.50 gallons of fuel on December 22, 2011.
According to a written statement provided by the operator, the airplane was fueled approximately 2 inches below the fuel cap neck on the main tanks two days prior to the accident. The operator reported that he had flown two flights, each of approximately 20 minutes in duration, and then secured the airplane; no other fuel was added to the airplane prior to the accident flight. The operator further reported that when he purchased fuel from the local FBO they fill a portable fuel tank located in the back of the company vehicle and then provide fuel to the airplane from that fuel tank.