At several of the holiday parties I attended, the topic of a recent small plane accident came up. Small planes crashing usually don't make too much news unless someone on board was famous (such as JFK Jr. or Steve Fossett) or the crash site was particularly spectacular and lives were lost on the ground. The crash I was being asked about seemed intriguing to non-pilots because the accident claimed the life of Michael Connell, who was scheduled to testify in an investigation regarding alleged voter fraud in Ohio. Adding to the interest were reports that Mr. Connell had cancelled some previous flights due to mechanical issues and an acquaintance of his seemed concerned that Mr. Connell's plane might have be sabotaged in order to silence him.
Non-pilots' imaginations might run wild at times like these, but most pilots don't like to speculate on the cause of a crash when little information is available. When I was first asked my opinion, the FAA had not even issued a preliminary accident report. So I listened to what people had heard and read. Based on that scant information, I tried to give an educated guess about the pilot, his aircraft, his mission, and the weather. All I knew initially was that the plane crashed somewhere Akron, Ohio, that it was a single-engine aircraft, that Connell was the sole occupant, and the aircraft crashed a few miles from the Akron-Canton Regional Airport, in a residential neighborhood. One news report quoted someone as saying that Connell was a "very experienced" pilot.
The prudent response to questions about an aircraft accident is to focus on the facts, but few were available. Even so, I opined that sabotage seemed unlikely, since the aircraft crashed at the end of a flight rather than the beginning. Another possibility suggested, suicide by airplane, seemed unlikely since the plane crashed during an instrument approach. Who would go to all that trouble if they were just planning to intentionally fly their plane into the ground or the side of a mountain? My answer at the time was that the likely cause for these sorts of accidents usually turned out to be fuel exhaustion or the pilot losing control of the aircraft for some reason. Sabotage, however intriguing, was wild speculation.
A preliminary NTSB report has now been released for this accident and the factors in this accident that are beginning to emerge could prove enlightening for other GA pilots.
45 year old Michael Connell held a private pilot Airplane Single-Engine Land certificate with Instrument Airplane privileges. His third class medical certificate was issued in October of 2007 and at that time he reported 510 hours of flight time. About a year later, one would assume that Connell probably had at least 600 hours at the time of the accident and this would have made him "somewhat experienced" in my book. As an instrument pilot, it seems unlikely that he had logged more than 100 hours of instrument time and probably little of that as pilot-in-command. According to FlightAware, the accident aircraft (presumably piloted by Connell) had flown at least 13 times in the four months preceding the crash and that would lead me to believe that Connell knew his aircraft fairly well.
The accident aircraft was a 1998 Piper Saratoga II, high-performance turbo-charged single-engine piston aircraft with a retractable landing gear. The internet being what it is, you can find photos of the accident aircraft when it was posted for sale in April of 2003. At that time, the aircraft reported 1055 hours on the engine and airframe since new. Also at that time, the aircraft was equipped with Garmin 530 and 430 GPS receivers, an autopilot with flight director, and a slaved HSI. The plane had a full set of co-pilot instruments but it did not appear to be equipped for, nor certified for, flight into known icing conditions.
The crash occurred in night meteorological conditions at the completion of a flight that originated at College Park Airport in Maryland. According to FlightAware, the aircraft (presumably piloted by Connell) had made flights between these two airports many times in the previous months. Even so, a single-pilot night IMC flight is inherently risky for a relatively low-time pilot and when things go wrong in these conditions, statistics show the results are very likely to be fatal.
According to the NTSB report, Connell was vectored to intercept the ILS RWY 23 localizer two miles from the outer marker and this is where things started to unravel. The controller noticed the aircraft was "well left of the localizer" and offered to vector him back to try again. Connell reportedly said he was correcting and that indicated he wanted to press on. The NTSB report doesn't mention a handoff to the Akron Tower, but at 2.5 miles from the airport, about halfway between the final approach fix and the runway threshold, Connell asked permission to perform a 360 degree turn.
A request for a 360 degree turn for aircraft on an ILS approach and inside the final approach fix is very odd, to say the least. At this point, the Akron surface weather reported 9 miles of visibility, but a broken ceiling of 500 feet and an overcast ceiling at 1000 feet. The controller (presumably the Akron Tower) instructed Connell to climb and maintain 3000 feet and I'd imagine the controller's intent was to hand him back to the approach controller. The controller asked Connell for his current heading, and the response was "due north and climbing" and he then declared an emergency. The impact occurred shortly thereafter.
A witness on the ground reported seeing "two bright lights coming almost nose first toward the ground with the engine 'roaring.'" If accurate, the nose-down attitude would indicate a loss of control due, possibly due to pilot disorientation. But icing may have been an factor, too. Earlier Connell had asked ATC if there were any pilot reports for icing. Unfortunately, there weren't any, but clearly the pilot was aware that ice could become a factor. Even if you have experience with icing encounters, seeing and appraising ice accumulation is quite difficult on an aircraft that is not equipped for known icing conditions. Seeing trace ice accumulating on black de-ice boots in the dark is difficult enough and ice just doesn't show up very well on a wing painted white.
The weather at Akron was bad and rapidly getting worse. In the fifteen minutes between 17:35 and 17:51, the ceiling dropped by 200 feet and the visibility dropped by a mile. By 18:09, 16 minutes after the crash, the visibility dropped to 2.5 miles and the ceiling dipped another 100 feet to overcast at 400 feet. The temperature and dewpoint were -1 degree C. With visible moisture present, airframe icing was to be expected. If the aircraft was accumulating ice, that would explain why the pilot tried to salvage what appears to have been a destabilized approach.
Examination of the aircraft crash site revealed that the propeller had separated, but indicated bending consistent with the engine generating power at the time of impact. The flight controls exhibited no anomalies and the landing gear was extended.
Other details that are eventually released in these sorts of accidents include toxicology reports on the pilot and a summary of radar data. But as of this writing, claims of sabotoge seem unsubstantiated by the facts. What seems apparent is that a single-pilot, night IMC flight by a relatively low-time pilot started to unravel, the pilot pressed on, and the results were tragic.