Friday, February 17, 2006

Accident of the Week

This week, we encounter a genuine mystery. Read for yourself:
NTSB Identification: ATL06FA045
Nonscheduled 14 CFR Part 135: Air Taxi & Commuter
Accident occurred Wednesday, February 08, 2006 in Paris, TN
Aircraft: Swearingen SA-226-TC, registration: N629EK
Injuries: 1 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.

On February 8, 2006, at 1210 central standard time, a Swearingen SA-226-TC, N629EK, registered to and operated by Tri-Coastal Airlines, Incorporated, as a Title 14 CFR Part 135 cargo flight, from Dayton, Ohio to Harlingen, Texas, collided with the ground in a nose down, near vertical attitude, near Paris, Tennessee. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and an instrument flight rules flight plan was filed. The airline transport-rated pilot received fatal injuries and the airplane was destroyed. The flight originated from Dayton, the same day at 1048.

Recorded communications between air traffic controllers at the FAA, Memphis Air Route Traffic Control Center, and the pilot of N629EK show that while in cruise flight at 16,000 feet, the pilot requested and was cleared to make a 360-degree turn to the left. Shortly after this, the pilot requested a 360-degree turn to the right. The pilot then requested radar vectors to the closest airport. Controllers gave the pilot a vector to the closest airport and asked if he had an emergency. The pilot reported he had an asymmetric fuel condition. The pilot then asked for a lower altitude. Controllers cleared the flight to 4,000 feet. About a minute later the pilot transmitted "Mayday" six times and shortly after this radar and radio contact with the flight was lost.

According to witnesses, the airplane was heard and then seen descending at a high rate of speed in a near vertical attitude and then collided with the ground and explode. Witnesses stated that the airplane sounded like a racing motorcycle going at a high rate of speed. Witnesses stated that after the crash they telephoned local authorities to report the accident.

Examination of the accident site found the airplane next to a pasture in a heavily wooded area. The airplane was observed in a crater approximately 15 feet deep, 40 feet long and 23 feet wide. The debris field extended about 375 feet forward of the crater, and about 100 feet in all other directions. Small pieces of airplane skin and a few propeller blades were observed in the debris field surrounding the crater.

This plane seemed like a real beauty, and the crash seems so very sudden. Not knowing much about the aircraft or its systems, it's nevertheless quite hard to fathom how a fuel imbalance could result in a such a catastrophe -- what seems to have been a near-vertical dive from 16,000 feet. The results of the crash seem so violent, it's hard to imagine that NTSB will find any pieces large enough to run any kind of meaningful tests. A local sheriff's deputy was quoted as saying, "If you didn't know it was an airplane, you would be able to tell." Ouch.

This article
from the local paper where the plane took off reports that the accident was fourth fatal accident since 2002 involving TriCoastal Airline or its sister operation, Grand Aire. That's an impressively horrible accident rate. From that same article, here's a summary of the other three fatal accidents, plus another that, thankfully, didn't kill anyone (although ditching a plane in the Mississippi River sure seems like a recipie for more fatalities):
  • On July 18, 2002, a Piper PA-60 landing in heavy fog at 3:45 a.m. crashed in a grassy area near a runway at Columbus, Ind., killing the pilot. An NTSB investigation blamed the crash on pilot error and fatigue. (NTSB final report)

  • On April 8, 2003, three Grand Aire pilots, including the company's chief pilot, died when a plane on a training flight from Traverse City, Mich., crashed west of Toledo Express. The safety board ruled that a failure by the chief pilot to properly oversee the training flight caused the crash. (NTSB final report)

  • Also on April 8, 2003, the two men aboard a Grand Aire flight from Del Rio, Texas, to St. Louis were injured when their plane ran out of fuel and ditched in the Mississippi River. (NTSB final report)

  • On Nov. 30, 2004, Grand Aire President Tahir Cheema and a co-pilot were killed when a 35-year-old Hansa jet they were flying from Missouri to Toledo on a special "ferry" permit crashed shortly after takeoff from Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, Mo. An NTSB investigation into the cause of that crash remains open. (NTSB incident report)

It wouldn't take too much of a stretch of the imagination to see TriCoastal/Grand Aire losing its Part 135 license.


Neil said...

Hopefully investigators can find something to go on with this wreckage. Its not unheard of, as the Canadians did with swissair flight 111, that was in millions of peices after impacting the ocean off Nova Scotia. But that was a very high profile accident...

Time will tell.

Greybeard said...

Pretty tough to find big pieces to study under these circumstances.....

30 years ago I went to the scene of a T-38 accident that was similar. He crashed in a nose-down attitude and they figure he hit the ground going 400 knots+.....left a 30 foot crater in the ground. The biggest pieces of the airplane they could find were landing gear knuckles and the engine splines. The rest was vaporized, as was the pilot.

We carried his body to grave's registration in a 5 gallon bucket, and that was only 1/5 full. Pieces of his scalp, his right palm, and finger and toe joints were pretty much all they found of him.

It'll be interesting to watch this one.