PIPER PA32 - 300
During a night visual flight rules (VFR) cross-country flight, the pilot encountered a rain shower that reduced the cloud ceiling and visibility, so he then attempted to return to the departure airport. While maneuvering, the airplane descended and impacted terrain. A witness estimated that the airplane's altitude was less than 500 feet. He saw the airplane make a sharp left turn and then fly out of his view and then he heard the sound of a crash. Physical evidence observed at the accident site was consistent with controlled flight into terrain. No evidence was found of any preimpact mechanical discrepancies that would have precluded normal operation of the airplane. Damage to the propeller blades was consistent with the engine developing power at impact. It is likely that the pilot attempted to maintain VFR flight by descending to remain below the clouds and was unable to see and avoid the terrain due to dark night conditions.
On October 6, 2013, about 0251 local time, a Piper PA-32-300, N4089W, was destroyed when it impacted terrain while maneuvering about 3 miles north of the Tinian International Airport on Tinian Island, United States Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The airline transport pilot and two passengers were fatally injured; four passengers were seriously injured. The airplane was being operated by Star Marianas Air, Inc., under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 135. A company visual flight rules (VFR) flight plan was filed for the planned 10-nautical mile, night, cross-country flight from Tinian Airport to Saipan International Airport on Saipan Island. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at Tinian Airport for the flight's departure about 0241. The operator reported that the airplane was 1 of 6 airplanes being used to transport a group of 127 Chinese tourists and travel guides from Tinian to Saipan to connect with a flight from Saipan to Shanghai, China. The weather conditions at both Tinian and Saipan Airports were reported to be VFR but other company pilots flying at the same time as the accident pilot indicated that there were rain showers occasionally passing between the two islands throughout the early morning hours. One company pilot reported that he departed Tinian immediately after the accident airplane. After takeoff on runway 08, the accident pilot turned left to a crosswind leg. The company pilot said that he then took off on runway 08 and turned left to a crosswind leg; he recalled seeing the accident airplane to his left, and it appeared to him that it was flying northwest toward the Voice of America (VOA) antennas (a group of strobe-lighted antennas up to 400 feet tall located on the northwest side of Tinian). The company pilot reported that there was a rain shower in the channel between Tinian and Saipan, and he could not see Saipan Airport when he took off. He further reported that there was a rain shower over the north end of Tinian. He asked the accident pilot where he was going, and he thought the reply was "heading toward VOA." The company pilot switched to the Saipan air traffic control tower (ATCT) frequency, and he heard the controller giving the accident pilot weather information. He contacted the controller and continued his flight to Saipan. The Saipan air traffic controller who spoke to the pilot stated that the pilot asked him for weather information, and he responded that he did not have Tinian or the VOA antenna lights in sight. The pilot acknowledged receiving the information, and there was no further communication between the controller and the pilot. The controller said that it was mostly clear over Saipan that night, and all of the weather seemed to be over Tinian. The company's chief pilot reported that he was landing at Tinian Airport as the accident airplane was taking off. He said that at that time, the weather in the channel between the islands was "not good with about 4 miles visibility and rain." After picking up his passengers, he departed for Saipan about 5 to 10 minutes after the accident airplane. When he took off, the weather was good over Tinian but the channel was blocked by a rain shower. He held for about 5 minutes over the airport until the weather cleared over the channel and then he continued to Saipan. A witness, who was a security guard at the VOA antenna site, reported that he saw the airplane fly by and noticed that it was flying lower than other airplanes he had seen before. He estimated the airplane's altitude was less than 500 feet. He saw the airplane make a sharp left turn, and he assumed it was heading back to Tinian Airport. The airplane flew out of his view to the southeast, and he then heard the sound of a crash. The witness reported that there was light rain at the time, and the airplane was below the clouds. The operator reported that between 0305 and 0315, the chief pilot determined that the airplane was overdue and notified Saipan ATCT, and a search was started. About 1035, the accident site was located about 3 miles north of Tinian Airport and 1.5 miles east/southeast of the VOA antennas. The wreckage was located on a hill in a densely wooded jungle area at an elevation of about 450 feet. PERSONNEL INFORMATION The pilot, age 59, held an airline transport pilot certificate with an airplane multi-engine land rating. He had commercial privileges in single engine land airplanes. He also held a flight instructor certificate with airplane single engine, airplane multi-engine, and instrument airplane ratings that expired on July 31, 2014. His most recent first-class medical certificate was issued on October 16, 2012, with the limitation, "holder shall possess glasses for near/intermediate vision." According to the operator, the pilot had a total flight time of 5,573 hours of which 499 hours were in the accident make and model airplane. His total night flight experience was 1,111 hours, and he had 430 hours of instrument flight experience of which 350 hours were in actual instrument meteorological conditions. In the past 90 days, 30 days, and 24 hours, the pilot flew 240, 50, and 3 hours, respectively, in the accident make and model airplane. His night experience in the past 90 days, 30 days, and 24 hours, was 61, 50, and 3 hours, respectively. The pilot's most recent Part 135 airman competency/proficiency check was satisfactorily accomplished on March 7, 2013, in a Piper PA-32-300. The operator's director of operations (DO) reported that about 0500 on the morning of October 5, 2013, the pilot was involved in an incident at Tinian Airport where "he inadvertently taxied an aircraft off the taxiway and into a ditch." The pilot, the sole occupant of the airplane, was not injured, and the airplane, a Piper PA-32-300, N8639N, sustained a propeller strike. The DO stated that it was dark when the incident occurred, and a taxiway light was out along a corner of the taxiway. He further stated that two other company pilots had similar trouble at the same location on the same night although there was no damage to their airplanes. The DO discussed the incident with the pilot about 0800. He saw the pilot again that evening, and he noted that the pilot "appeared fine." He asked the pilot if he "felt ok to fly that night," and the pilot replied that he was ok. AIRCRAFT INFORMATION According to the operator, the airplane was maintained in accordance with a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved aircraft inspection program, and the most recent inspection was completed on October 5, 2013. At the time of the accident, the airplane had accumulated 17,003 hours, and the engine, a Lycoming IO-540-K1A5, had accumulated 1,380 hours since major overhaul. The airplane was equipped with a Garmin Aera 500 portable global positioning system (GPS) navigation device that incorporated a moving map display. METEOROLOGICAL INFORMATION At 0254, an automated weather reporting station at Saipan Airport, located about 7 nautical miles north of the accident site, reported wind from 070 degrees at 4 knots, visibility 10 miles, scattered clouds at 1,600 feet, broken clouds at 2,300 feet, temperature 26 degrees Celsius (C), dew point temperature 24 degrees C, and altimeter 29.71 inches of mercury. The remarks section of the report stated that rain began at 0159 and ended at 0230. Review of images from the Weather Surveillance Radar (WSR)-88D installation at Anderson Air Force Base, Guam, located about 100 nautical miles south of the accident site, indicated that between 0245 and 0251, an area of precipitation moved westward from offshore and covered the northern end of Tinian Island. WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION A FAA inspector conducted an on scene examination of the wreckage and reported that the airplane impacted trees; both wings and the empennage separated from the fuselage; and the main wreckage, consisting of the fuselage and engine, came to rest about 200 feet from the first point of impact with the trees. The debris path from the initial impact point to the fuselage was oriented on a heading of about 130 degrees (southeast). The fuselage came to rest on its right side, and the cabin roof separated from the fuselage and was laying beneath the aft section of the fuselage. The propeller remained attached to the engine crankshaft, and all three propeller blades were bent and twisted in a manner consistent with the engine developing power at impact. The examination revealed no evidence of any pre-impact mechanical anomalies or malfunctions that would have precluded normal operation of the airplane. MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION An autopsy was performed on the pilot on October 9, 2013, by the Department of Public Health of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. A request was made by the FAA inspector for specimens to be sent to the FAA's Bioaeronautical Sciences Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for forensic toxicology but no specimens were received. TESTS AND RESEARCH A Garmin Aera 500 portable GPS navigation device was recovered from the wreckage. Track data was downloaded from the unit and plotted. The data indicated that the airplane departed Tinian Airport and turned left to a north/northeast heading that was maintained until it reached the eastern shore of Tinian Island. The airplane then made a right 270-degree turn to a northwesterly heading that was maintained until about 1650. At 1649:40, the airplane was at a GPS altitude of 1,135 feet, and it began to turn left and descend. The last data point recorded was at 1651:14 at a GPS altitude of 302 feet; by this time, the airplane had turned about 180 degrees and was heading roughly southeast.
The pilot’s failure to maintain terrain clearance while maneuvering at low altitude in dark night conditions.
Source: NTSB Aviation Accident Database
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