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Aviation Accident

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NTSB Identification: ERA17FA222
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Saturday, July 01, 2017 in Chatsworth, GA
Aircraft: PIPER PA23, registration: N44HJ
Injuries: 4 Fatal.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

On July 1, 2017, about 1644 eastern daylight time, a Piper PA-23-250 airplane, N44HJ, was destroyed during an inflight breakup near Chatsworth, Georgia. The pilot and three passengers were fatally injured. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plan was filed. The flight originated at Moton Field Municipal Airport (06A), Tuskegee, Alabama and was destined for McMinn County Airport (MMI), Athens, Tennessee. The personal flight was conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.

According to family members, the pilot and his family were returning home after a weeklong trip. Witnesses at the departure airport recalled servicing the airplane earlier that morning. The line service technician at 06A stated that the airplane arrived about 1000 and requested fuel. After the airplane was fueled with about 45 gallons of aviation gasoline, the pilot and the passengers boarded the airplane. The pilot then unsuccessfully attempted to start the engines and after about 5-7 minutes the service technician asked if he needed assistance. The pilot responded, "no we're good…she (the airplane) does this when the engines get too hot." The pilot tried to start the engines a few more times before asking the service technician if he had a battery charger. The technician told the pilot that he did not have a battery charger and offered the use of the airport vehicle to charge the battery. The pilot connected battery cables from the vehicle's battery to the airplane's battery and again tried start the engines, with no success. One of the field tenants offered the pilot use of a battery charger. The airplane was towed into a hangar and the charger was connected. The gauge on the charger displayed that the battery would take 2 hours to charge. The pilot and his family decided to get something to eat while they waited for the battery to charge. When the pilot and his family returned, they boarded the airplane and both engines were started; he taxied to the runway and departed about 1500.

According to information obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the pilot was not receiving radar services, nor was he in communication with air traffic control (ATC) while en route or at any time during the accident flight. Radar data revealed a target consistent with the accident airplane heading northeast when it encountered a boundary of advancing thunderstorms from the northwest. Further review of the radar data showed that as the airplane penetrated the thunderstorm radar contact was lost.

According to witnesses, they watched as a thunderstorm approached, it was not raining at the time but they could hear the thunder in the distance. As they continued to watch the thunderstorm they heard a loud "boom" followed by observing pieces of the airplane and personal belongings falling out of the clouds. Shortly thereafter, one of the witnesses stated that they watched as the airplane came "tumbling and spinning" out of the sky. They continued to watch the airplane until it was out of view and then called the local authorities.

The wreckage was scattered over a large area that included very dense vegetation. The debris field was about 1 mile in length, oriented toward 030° true. The first components located along the debris field were fragments of the fuselage. Additional components located along the debris path included fragments of the right and left wing assembly. The left engine remained attached to a section of the left wing assembly and the right engine was separated from the wing and was at the end of the debris path. The fuselage came to rest near the wings. The fuselage, cockpit, cabin section, empennage and engines were destroyed.

The wreckage was recovered from the site and retained for further examination.