Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are in the midst of a thorough investigation of the October 24 airplane crash of Inwood resident Clinton Powers, 70, and his passenger, Randy Garcia, 67. The two men died when Powers’ low-wing Mooney airplane crashed in a Summit Point apple orchard and burst into flames.
The accident brought an immediate outpouring of grief from Powers’ friends. Martinsburg airport manager Neil Doran issued a special press release praising Powers as “a warm, thoughtful man and a joy to talk with” and called him a “model tenant.” His Facebook page shows he also enjoyed traveling, flying in formation with other aircraft, classic cars and motorcycling.
Just by chance, I got to chat with Clint for a few minutes the day before his tragic death. Among other things, we bemoaned poor public understanding of aviation. It’s a common topic of pilot conversation, but Clint seemed particularly interested in helping people understand ‘little airplanes.’ I didn’t know it at the time, but he was the only pilot-aircraft owner on the Martinsburg airport to respond to an August call for display aircraft at the airport’s open house. Clint remained at the display most of the day, answering questions about aviation directly and honestly, something I’ve done too, so his devotion to helping people understanding aviation was real.
In that spirit, here’s a look at how the NTSB will conduct its investigation of this accident, what clues they’ll be seeking, and hopefully point to the complexities in answering the big question: what happened?
The NTSB does an exhaustive investigation of all fatal airplane crashes. It will research Power’s flying experience, the complete maintenance history of his 1960 airplane, engine history and a complete tear-down of the engine if necessary. They’ll check all the instruments, radios, electrical and mechanical systems. They’ll examine any contacts Powers had with air traffic control facilities. They’ll check his medical records and may insist on an autopsy. They’ll calculate expected airplane performance for the weather conditions, and interview any witnesses they can find who saw the airplane that day, especially near the time of the crash.
It could take a year or more before the NTSB releases its final “probable cause” report on the crash.
Pilot Inexperience Not Likely
Powers’ aviation experience dates back to at least the 1980s, building time as a flight instructor until winning a first officer position with Hawaiian Airlines in 1986, flying Douglas DC-8s. In 1989, he was hired by United Airlines and flew Boeing 767s for that company until he retired in September 2014. The NTSB will have an ocean of training and proficiency records to review from his airline days.
But one of the NTSB’s first questions in this crash, may be, “yes, but were those hours the right kind of hours?”
Pilots will tell you that although nearly all pilots learn to fly in light aircraft, moving into jets is a world apart. In a single-engine airplane, the pilot must always control the airplane by manipulating three controls: the ailerons, the elevator and the rudder. It’s a set of manual skills needed to control the airplane precisely, and must be learned by all pilots. Pilots who are adept at coordinating the controls are sometimes described “feeling as one with the airplane,” and their skills are widely admired.
But in jets, few of those basic skills are used much. Instead, flying is mostly programming dashboard navigation computers, dialing in radio frequencies and punching buttons to make multiple computers fly the craft. For the last decade or more, airlines have been automating their airplanes as much as possible, allowing even near non-existent visibility landings perfectly. Human pilots aren’t allowed to interfere unless something goes wrong. In terms of safety, more automation has been wonderful. Since the February 2009 crash of the Colgan Airways commuter plane in New York, it was more than nine years until a catastrophic engine failure on a Southwest Airlines flight killed a passenger in 2018.
An Old Airplane?
Powers purchased his 1960 Mooney M20 in early summer, receiving the official FAA registration for N8354E on June 13. Electronic flight records show he had flown it at least weekly, mostly in the local area.
The Mooney M20 is an iconic airplane, easily recognizable by its backward-appearing tail, and it has a sporty reputation among pilots. One thing the NTSB will check immediately is whether his airplane’s structure was made of wood or aluminum; 1960 was the year Mooney Aircraft changed from wood to metal construction.
Although light airplanes remain officially airworthy if thoroughly inspected at least once a year by an FAA-certificated mechanic, the NTSB always checks anyway. They’ll no doubt chat with the mechanic who signed off on the airplane’s latest annual inspection and examine the wreckage thoroughly.
The average small airplane is about 35 years old. A resurgence of interest in learning to fly, along with new airplane designs in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s added newer airplanes to the fleet, but 59-year-old aircraft like Power’s Mooney are not unusual.
Despite the aging fleet, the overall safety record for ‘little airplane’ fatal crashes hit a new low in 2016 of just 136 fatal accidents. There were an additional 1,054 non-fatal accidents, the majority of those are the aviation equivalent of fender-benders. Rather expensive fender-benders, pilots are quick to add.
The only other NTSB-investigated accident in the Eastern Panhandle this year occurred June 14 near Hedgesville, when a non-pilot attempted to take off from the Green Landings private airstrip in a homebuilt, experimental airplane, injuring himself and a passenger. Since the person at the controls did not have a pilot license, the NTSB report listed the aircraft operator as “passenger.”
Air Traffic Control
NTSB investigators assigned to this crash will carefully document every detail of the flight. They will pull up FAA radar tracks of the flight and listen to every scrap of radio conversation Powers may have had along the way. They will check all records on the pilot, focusing on whether he met federal currency requirements in a myriad of areas, and interviewing flight instructors and others who had flown with him.
Because Powers had added a new type of reporting transponder to his airplane, called an ADS-B system, investigators will also be able to pull up a nearly-complete record of his fatal flight, seeing his exact altitude and airspeed second-by-second, but only as long as the flight stayed high enough. Once down low, perhaps practicing ground reference maneuvers at 500 feet above the ground, the signal disappears.
It’s likely they’ll talk with the flight instructor who signed off on Power’s required flight review within the past two years, looking for clues to his flying ability.
The Lycoming O-360, the air-cooled engine in Mr. Power’s airplane, is a dependable aircraft engine widely used in light airplanes. It uses aviation gasoline and burns approximately 10-11 gallons per hour of flight. If the NTSB suspects engine problems were involved, they will perform a complete tear-down of the engine.
Engine failure itself, though, does not normally cause a flaming fatal accident on a lovely fall day. In the event of engine failure, airplanes kept under control glide nicely to an available open patch of ground. All it takes is enough altitude at the start and ordinary piloting skill.
On the afternoon the crash occurred, the sun was shining, breezes were light and visibility was what pilots would call CAVU – Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited. Investigators will gather all types of weather reports from nearby sources, but it’s unlikely weather will be considered a factor.
The list of ‘human factors’ the NTSB includes in its accident investigations is long, and includes pilot fatigue, medication, alcohol, drugs, medical histories, training, workload, equipment design and work environment.
As many as 10 to 20 investigators of varying specialties may be called in at various times during the investigation of this accident, and if something turns up that could be a safety hazard to other aircraft, the NTSB will issue official safety recommendations.
In the meantime, we mourn the loss of Powers and his passenger Randy Garcia and wait for the NTSB to tell us what happened.
Kevin D Murphy is a Jefferson County aviation safety expert. He was VP at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Frederick, MD from 1993 until 2008, and VP for training at that group’s Air Safety Foundation. He holds certification as an FAA Commercial Pilot with instrument and multi-engine ratings, and has been a Certificated Flight Instructor for more than 45 years.