"If everything was as it should have been, it would have been very difficult," said Mark Pierce, a Texas-based attorney and pilot, talking about the plane receiving the wrong fuel on Aug. 27.
A technician filled the twin-engine, propeller-driven plane with jet fuel instead of the required aviation-grade gasoline about half an hour before the evening crash, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board released last week.
The NTSB's report did not indicate whether that mistake caused the Cessna 421C to crash. But Pierce said engine failure reported by the crew onboard and black smoke seen by witnesses on a nearby interstate are consistent with such a fueling error and subsequent crash.
Investigators smelled jet fuel the next day at the crash scene, the report states.
Aside from being a commercial pilot and certified instructor, Pierce works for a law firm in Austin, Texas that has handled air ambulance crashes similar to last month's incident.
The aircraft that went down was registered to Elite Medical Air Transport out of El Paso and, that night, was transporting a Las Cruces
The NTSB report doesn't specify what measures the Las Cruces Airport or Southwest Aviation, the company that operates there and the fuel farm, had in place to ensure aircraft receive the correct fuel.
A copy of the fuel farm lease between the city and Southwest Aviation, obtained this week by the Sun-News though a public records request, provides few details about the fuel other than listing the two types — jet fuel and aviation gasoline, known as avgas — stored there.
The lease requires Southwest Aviation to carry insurance and states the city, any elected officials and employees will be held harmless for any liabilities or claims against the facility. Pierce said that type of wording is standard in such arrangements.
Hal Kading, owner of Southwest Aviation, has declined to discuss his company's general policies or practices related to fueling aircraft, saying that the company is part of the ongoing investigation.
Pierce said there should have been numerous safeguards.
First, since 1987, federal rules required all Cessnas like the model that crashed to be modified so that a jet fuel nozzle wouldn't fit into the aircraft's fuel port. The jet fuel nozzles are typically spade shaped, Pierce said.
"It's almost inconsiderable that in 2014 the modification wouldn't have been done," Pierce said.
Federal Aviation Registry data, available via its website, doesn't list the year that specific Cessna 421C was built. But that model was not produced after 1985, records show.
The plane was up to date with its certificate, records show, and was operated by Amigos Aviation of Harlingen, Texas.
Pierce said investigators will also look at the fuel truck, to ensure it had the proper nozzle. Avgas nozzles are smaller than those generally used for jet fuel. He said it's possible that a different nozzle was used to fill a smaller aircraft with jet fuel, then was not replaced to fill the Cessna.
Records show that the pilot, 29-year-old Freddy Martinez of El Paso, was in the cockpit that evening when he ordered 40 gallons of fuel from a line service technician, the NTSB report states.
The NTSB report states that after Martinez ordered the fuel, an unidentified technician drove a fuel truck up to the plane and refueled it, adding 20 gallons near each wing.
Martinez helped the technician replace fuel caps, the report states, then signed the corresponding fuel ticket after they both walked inside.
Onboard with Martinez were three others: Fredrick Green, 59, a Las Cruces man being transported for cancer treatment; flight paramedic Tauren Summers, 27, of El Paso; and flight nurse Monica Chavez, 35, of Las Cruces.
Jet fuel smells and looks different than avgas, Pierce said, but the fueling process likely wouldn't have released enough fumes for those nearby to tell the difference.
A propeller-driven plane won't run on pure jet fuel, Pierce said, but a misfueled plane can because it typically has a mixture of avgas. That eventually leads to unplanned combustion inside the engine and, ultimately, failure, he said.
The complete investigation will take some time, Pierce said, and the FAA takes a "hard look" at operators when air ambulances crash.
City Council discussed improvement to the airport at Tuesday's meeting, but those were part of the airport's long-term plan and unrelated to the crash, City Manager Robert Garza said.
- Source: http://www.lcsun-news.com
NTSB Identification: CEN14FA462
Nonscheduled 14 CFR Part 135: Air Taxi & Commuter
Accident occurred Wednesday, August 27, 2014 in Las Cruces, NM
Aircraft: CESSNA 421C, registration: N51RX
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 August 27, 2014, about 1900 mountain daylight time, a Cessna Airplane Company 421C, multi-engine airplane, N51RX, was destroyed after impacting terrain during initial climb near Las Cruces International Airport (LRU), Las Cruces, New Mexico. The pilot, two medical crewmembers and one patient were fatally injured. The airplane was registered to Elite Medical Air Transport, LLC; El Paso, Texas, and was operated by Amigos Aviation, Inc.; Harlingen, Texas. Day visual meteorological conditions (VMC) prevailed at the time of the accident and an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan had been filed for the 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 135 air ambulance flight. At the time of the accident the airplane was departing LRU for a flight to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), Phoenix, Arizona.
The airplane arrived LRU about 1834 to pickup a patient for a flight to PHX. The pilot was still seated in the cockpit when he gave the line service technician a verbal order for a total of forty gallons of fuel. The line service technician drove the fuel truck to the front of the airplane and refueled the airplane putting 20 gallons in each wing. The pilot then assisted the line service technician with replacing both fuel caps. They both walked into the office and the pilot signed the machine printed fuel ticket.
After departing LRU to the west a medical crewmember onboard the airplane called their medical dispatcher on a satellite telephone and reported they were returning to LRU because of a problem with smoke coming from the right engine. A witness driving westbound on the interstate highway reported the airplane was westbound and about 200 feet above ground level (agl) when he saw smoke begin to appear from the right engine. The airplane then began descending and started a left turn to the east. Another witness, driving eastbound on the interstate highway, reported the airplane was trailing smoke when it passed over him about 100 feet agl. He saw the descending airplane continue its left turn to the east and then lost sight of it. Several witnesses reported seeing the impact or hearing the sound of impact and they then immediately saw smoke or flames.
Evidence at the scene showed the airplane was generally eastbound and upright when it impacted terrain resulting in the separation of the left propeller and the separation of the right aileron. The airplane came to rest inverted about 100 feet from the initial impact point, and there was an immediate postimpact fire which consumed much of the airplane. Investigators who arrived at the scene on the day following the accident reported detecting the smell of jet fuel.
A postaccident review of refueling records and interviews with line service technicians showed that the airplane had been misfuelled with 40 gallons of Jet A fuel instead of the required 100LL aviation gasoline.
At 1855 the automated weather observing system at LRU, located about 3 miles northeast from the accident location, reported wind from 040 degrees at 5 knots, visibility of 10 miles, broken clouds at 6,500 feet, temperature 23 degrees Celsius (C), dew point 16 degrees C, with an altimeter setting of 30.16 inches of Mercury.
Flight Standards District Office: FAA Albuquerque FSDO-01
ELITE MEDICAL AIR TRANSPORT LLC: http://registry.faa.gov/N51RX
Any witnesses should email firstname.lastname@example.org, and any friends and family who want to contact investigators about the accident should email email@example.com.
Debris from the medical aircraft crash about half a mile west of the Southern New Mexico State Fairgrounds was removed from the scene.
(Photo by Carlos Javier Sanchez — Las Cruces Sun-News)
Randall Jarman, a recovery manager with Air Transport in Phoenix, tightens wire straps to secure debris from the crash site of a medical aircraft. All four people aboard were killed in the crash just west of Las Cruces.
(Photo by Carlos Javier Sanchez — Las Cruces Sun-News)
A crane removes wreckage from the site of a medical aircraft crash about half a mile west of the Southern New Mexico State Fairgrounds.
New Mexico State Police Lt. James Frietze leads investigators with the Federal Aviation Administration and NSTB to a crash site half-mile southwest of the Southern New Mexico Fairgrounds.