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On January 28, 2012, about 1430 eastern standard time, a Piper PA-31-310, N30DC, was substantially damaged during a forced landing to a beach in Palm Beach, Florida, following a loss of engine power in both engines. The airline transport pilot was not injured. The airplane was registered to and operated by Secure Aviation, Inc., under 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and a visual flight rules fight plan was filed for the personal flight, which originated at San Salvador International Airport (MYSM), San Salvador, The Bahamas, around 1220. The intended destination was St. Lucie County International Airport (FPR), Fort Pierce, Florida.
According to the pilot, the accident occurred on the inbound leg to the United States, with the airplane having flown an outbound leg the same day. Flight planning was completed on the day before the flights, with 2.0 hours planned outbound and 2.5 hours inbound. Planned fuel consumption was for 150 to 160 gallons used with 26 to 36 useable remaining.
On the morning of the accident, the pilot flew the airplane first to Palm Beach International Airport (PBI), West Palm Beach, Florida, where one of the owners and two guests boarded the airplane. The pilot had the airplane topped off with fuel and visually confirmed a top-off of 22 gallons.
Preflight inspection, start, taxi, run-up and takeoff checks were normal, and the airplane departed PBI about 1015. The pilot climbed the airplane to 9,500 feet and landed at MYSM 2 hours later. Ground speeds were 184 to190 knots. Fuel tanks were switched inboard to outboard at the top of the climb and back to inboard prior to landing. Cruise power setting was 65 percent, 2,400 RPM and 27 inches of manifold pressure. Descent was a coupled, 400 fpm constant power down to 1,000 feet.
After unloading and clearing customs, the airplane took off for FPR about 1240. Pre-flight, start, taxi, run-up and pre-takeoff checks were "normal." The pilot noted a slight split in manifold pressure throughout the climb. By the time the airplane reached a cruising altitude of 10,500 feet, the left engine was unable to maintain more than 55 per cent power, 2,200 rpm and 26 inches of manifold pressure. The pilot matched the right engine power to that setting.
Fuel tanks were switched at the top of the climb. The pilot consulted the Pilot Operating Handbook which indicated a 4 gallon-per-hour reduction in fuel consumption. Ground speeds were 152 to160 knots. Estimated time en route per the GPS was 2.6 hours of total time.
The pilot utilized the outboard fuel tank fuel after reaching cruise altitude. The left outboard tank emptied about 15 minutes before the right tank, which was unusual as both engines burned evenly, and would [normally] lose power within 5 minutes of each other.
About 60 nm from FPR, the pilot started a coupled, 400-feet-per-minute (fpm) rate of descent. About 40 nm south of FPR, the left engine began surging. Fuel gauges indicated just below 1/4 full on the left main fuel tank and above 1/4 full on the right main fuel tank.
The pilot turned on the emergency boost pump, then selected fuel cross flow which restored power to the left engine. Using the "nearest airport" GPS function, he determined that PBI was the closest airport, 14 nm closer than FPR.
The airplane was slightly north of PBI at that point, so the pilot slowed the descent rate, turned the airplane toward PBI, contacted Palm Beach Approach Control and continued the descent. PBI was landing runways 10R, 10L, and 14.
The controller advised the pilot to cross the Palm Beach Inlet at 2,000 feet for runway 14.
Shortly thereafter, the left engine surged, then lost power, followed closely by the right engine. The pilot turned on the emergency boost pumps, switched to the outboard fuel tanks and inboard tanks sequentially, both separately and with cross flow, but was unable to restore engine power.
The pilot then completed the feathering procedure for both engines and established a best glide attitude. The airplane was about 7,500 feet at the time, with a descent rate of about 500 fpm.
The pilot considered his landing options, which included requesting runways 28R or 28L. He elected to remain on the heading for the inlet as it was doubtful that the airplane would make it all the way to the airport. Once past the beach, the flight path direct to the airport was over a densely populated area. As the airplane got closer, the options became the beach north of the inlet, the beach south of the inlet, or the water just offshore. There was a long, wide, clear spot on the southern beach adjacent to the inlet with no people on it.
The pilot advised the controller that a landing was assured on the beach south of the inlet. He established a high base turn over the inlet, completed the landing checks, selected full flaps and turned onto a final approach. Pumping the landing gear down was not an option, and the airplane touched down in a nose high attitude, decelerated rapidly, and spun counter-clockwise about 450 degrees.
According to the Piper Navajo Service Manual,
"The fuel system is contained in two independent systems that allow each engine to have its own fuel supply. The systems are connected by a cross feed valve that allows fuel to be drawn from one set of fuel cells to the engine on the opposite side, in the event of an emergency. The fuel cells are of the bladder type. The inboard cells (main) and the outboard cells (auxiliary) are installed in cavities in the wings. Each inboard cell has a capacity of 56 U.S. gallons and each outboard has a capacity of 40 U.S. gallons.
Fuel is taken from each cell through a screen located in the cell outlet fitting and then onto the shutoff selector valve. From the selector valve, fuel is drawn in a series configuration through the fuel filter, electric fuel pump, emergency shutoff valve and onto the engine-driven pump. These units, except for the engine driven pump, are accessible through a panel located between the underside of each wing and the fuselage.
The fuel filter, and electric and engine pumps incorporate a bypass that will open in the event of fuel stoppage through the normal passage. Drains are provided for each fuel cell, filter bowl and the cross feed line. The cell drains are visible on the underside of each wing at the inboard end of the cells. The filter bowl drains are accessible through an access door on the panel that is located between the underside of each wing and the fuselage. The cross feed is located on the left panel, aft of the filter bowl access door.
The fuel valves are operated through controls located in a panel just ahead of the main spar, between the pilot seats.
Fuel gauges will indicate the quantity of fuel in each cell that fuel is being drawn from."
According to a responding FAA inspector, the right engine firewall was substantially damaged, there was no fuel observed onboard, and there was no evidence of fuel leakage. There were also no apparent preexisting mechanical anomalies noted with the airplane other than the left engine turbocharger, which revealed evidence of oil seepage between the turbine and compressor sections.
FAA personnel were not present when the airplane was removed from the beach; however, the insurance adjuster who was present also did not note any evidence of fuel leakage on the underside of the airplane once it was lifted. Photographs confirmed no fuel streaks underneath.
A follow-on examination of the left engine turbocharger under FAA oversight did not reveal any defects with the unit.
The pilot did not note any preexisting anomalies with the fuel quantity indicators.
Radar data was requested from the FAA for the accident flight. However, the only data provided was from about the time that the pilot contacted Palm Beach Approach Control.
A commercial flight tracking web site, FlightAware, revealed outbound radar tracking from PBI to MYSM, with a takeoff time of 0957, and a landing time of 1206. However, there was no data available for the return flight.
A direct line plot from MYSM to FPR indicated that the airplane would have passed over Grand Bahama International Airport (MYGF), Freeport, The Bahamas. At the time the pilot called Palm Beach Approach Control, the airplane was about 50 nm beyond MYGF, 55 nm from FPR, and 32 nm northeast of PBI.
MYSM did not have fuel. According to multiple sources, MYGF had 100 LL fuel.
In a written statement, the pilot stated that he took off from MYSM at 1240. On the NTSB Pilot/Operator Report, he stated that he took off at 1220. A request to Bahamian authorities for an official takeoff time was unsuccessful.
The pilot also stated in the Pilot/Operator Report that the airplane took off from MYSM with 120 gallons of fuel onboard.
The pilot provided a copy of his flight planning calculations. According to his flight planning, start, taxi and run-up fuel usage was 12.0 gallons, two climbs combined for 15.6 gallons, 65 percent power cruise PBI to MYSM was 52.8 gallons, and MYSM to FPR 66.7 gallons for a total time of 4.6 hours and 147.1 gallons used.
The pilot also provided previous U.S. to/from The Bahamas fuel usage and noted that he had successfully flown the airplane round trip to MYSM on numerous previous occasions, with varying routes, with hours of operation ranging from 4.6 to 5.1 hours.