Dr. Bernhard "Bernie" Helmut Charlemagne of Frederick, Maryland, died at the scene.
John Hicks had survived a childhood of poverty and years of addiction before the 2014 plane crash in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia. He still teaches hunter safety courses in Maryland.
Bob Shiflet, left, and Phil Hoover at the Clover Hill Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department in Dayton, Va. They were the first two people to reach the crash site. The newspaper articles feature their rescue efforts.
They had been flying for a half-hour when John Hicks noticed that the Cessna’s airspeed had dipped, so he mentioned it to the flight instructor. His teacher, sitting next to him in the cramped cockpit, pushed in the throttle, accelerating the aircraft with such power that it rocked Hicks’s head back. It was then that he lifted his eyes, peered out the windshield and saw what was directly before them in the darkness enveloping the George Washington National Forest: a mountain.
At more than 120 mph, the 2,500-pound plane sliced through a cluster of Appalachian hardwoods in a remote corner of northwestern Virginia. The tip of the left wing snapped off and the right wing struck a tree so hard that it streaked the trunk with red paint. Hicks heard metal rip, glass shatter, tree limbs break, the engine scream. And yet the Cessna 172, he realized, hadn’t stopped moving.
Then it did.
Hicks had longed to learn to fly since childhood, but he’d been convinced that people like him — who’d grown up poor, barely graduated from high school, worked blue-collar jobs — simply didn’t do things like that. He often took lunch breaks at airport parking lots just to watch the planes take off. Then two years ago, at age 50, his roofing business had done well enough that he could afford the $10,000 it would cost to get his pilot’s license — formally known as an airman certificate.
And so, on the evening of Nov. 8, 2014, already with 23 hours of experience in the air, Hicks and his German-born teacher, Bernie Charlemagne, had taken off from Frederick, Md., in what was supposed to be the student pilot’s longest flight to date. Instead, their small plane became one of more than 1,200 private U.S. aircraft to crash that year.
Seconds after the impact, Hicks opened his eyes. Through the ringing in his ears, he heard gurgling.
“We’re in water,” he thought, now afraid of drowning. “We’re sinking.”
The Cessna had slammed into a rock, leaving a metallic scar in the mountainside before sliding 20 feet down. Just yards from plummeting off a steep incline, the plane had been caught by an oak tree and settled with its nose straight down and its cracked tail pointed into the night sky.
To Hicks’s right, Charlemagne gasped for air.
Panic engulfed Hicks, even as he realized — because of its smell — that the gurgling sound he heard was fuel flowing out of the ruptured tanks in the wings. What if it caught fire? He ripped the key out of the ignition and switched off the yellow lights on the instrument panel. Hicks unbuckled his harness, but he remained trapped. The wreck was so violent that it had shoved the pedals beneath the seat, trapping his legs.
“I can’t breathe,” Charlemagne shrieked.
Hicks’s heart pounded. He had to get out.
He yanked on his blue Levi’s until he freed his feet, then crawled out and slumped onto the open plane door, now serving as a platform.
He inhaled. He exhaled.
It was nearing 6:30 on a winter night, and at 3,100 feet above sea level, the temperature on the mountain would soon approach freezing. His left foot, snapped below the shin, was pointed back to his knee, and his right foot had been crushed at the ankle. Inside the plane, the man to whom he had entrusted his life sounded certain that he was about to die. And soon Hicks would begin to fear that because of bad luck and worse judgment, they might never be found.
In a sense, though, what he faced that night felt familiar. Hicks had already endured a half-century of struggle, and none of it — not his tumultuous childhood, years of addiction or near collisions with death — had broken him.
Now he had to find a way to survive once more.
‘Get me out!’
Hicks needed a plan.
He had just severed the harness around Charlemagne, who then slumped through the blown-out windshield with his feet still pinned beneath the seat.
“Get me out!” Charlemagne pleaded. But Hicks, strong and stout at 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds, couldn’t free him.
And now, as always, he focused on his next step. “What’s the plan?” Hicks would say so often that friends repeated it just to tease him.
He’d developed that obsession with what would come next because as a child he rarely knew.
His father, a mechanic, was a drunk who on especially bad nights beat Hicks’s mother, Margaret. When Hicks was 6, she left his dad and moved with him and his younger brother, Bobby, to an unkempt apartment in Silver Spring, Md., where the boys found cockroaches beneath their bunk beds and shared meals on a plywood slab stacked atop car tires. To support her boys, Margaret took a job at the phone company that paid $75 a week.
Their poverty embarrassed Hicks, who hated when do-gooders left cans of food on their doorstep. He never did homework, but he did learn to fight and steal bicycles and, at age 11, drink alcohol. Around 15, after his mother had remarried, he drank so much Southern Comfort one evening that when he stumbled into the back yard vomiting, she called an ambulance.
The chaos in his life nearly killed him that night, and on many other occasions in the years that followed as he collapsed into drug abuse. What saved Hicks a decade later was a plan that led him to meetings where every night he introduced himself the same way: “Hi, my name is John. I’m an addict.”
Sprawled on the door of the wrecked airplane, he worked on another plan: We have to get off this mountain.
His cellphone had been clipped to a pocket of his jeans, but now it was gone, presumably crushed on the mountainside. Charlemagne’s was missing, too. Beneath a full moon, Hicks searched through two flight bags and found an emergency radio kit, but its battery had died.
Dread gripped him.
His fiancee, Michele Bossard, had left for Moscow on business, which meant only her son, JB, would notice Hicks’s absence. At just 13, would he know what to do? Even if he did make a report, Hicks realized, JB was likely to tell authorities that the plane was headed to Charlottesville, their original destination. The boy did not know that the flight instructor had decided before takeoff that they would instead travel to Hot Springs, more than 60 miles west.
Charlemagne hadn’t filed a flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration or, before leaving the Frederick Flight Center, written their intended destination on the whiteboard, as he usually did. The light to the plane’s emergency locator transmitter was on, but Hicks suspected its antenna had broken.
No one, he thought, would know how to find them.
Both men were quiet now, Hicks on the door and Charlemagne, 49, trapped upside down in a cockpit splattered with blood. They’d first met weeks earlier and flown together seven or eight times. To Hicks, Charlemagne was quirky but enthusiastic, a description used by many who knew him. Friends said he found his greatest joys in both teaching and learning. He’d studied politics in Washington and economics in London and traveled through Europe, Africa and South America, developing a dry but charming sense of humor. His wife, Irene Mueller, supported his many passions — flying, camping, engraving, tinkering — and spent weekends with him at flea markets.
Hicks knew almost none of that about Charlemagne, but there they were on the side of a mountain with the moon climbing higher and the night growing colder.
“I’m sorry,” Charlemagne told him. “I love my wife. I just want to be home.”
Then he said nothing more.
‘Please, God, let John be okay’
JB woke up at 11 that night, hours after he’d fallen asleep in their Monrovia, Md., home. He had expected Hicks back around 8 for dinner.
The teenager checked the garage and saw that their blue Dodge Challenger was still gone.
He texted and called, leaving messages: “John, if you get this, please call back.”
JB tried his mother, but couldn’t reach her in Russia. He sat down in the living room next to their dog, Lulu, and began to cry.
His biological father had killed himself before he was born, and he had struggled with that reality for years. He was just 3 when his mother met Hicks, who had taught JB how to tie a hook to a fishing line, control his breath while aiming a hunting bow and taunt Flyers fans at Caps hockey games.
At their favorite Italian restaurant after JB’s basketball practice the night before, Hicks could talk about nothing but his upcoming flight.
And now JB feared that the man who helped raise him had died in a crash.
“Please, God,” he prayed, “let John be okay.”
He called 911.
His dad was a student pilot, JB told the dispatcher. He had flown that night but still had not come back. JB insisted, until investigators believed him, that something had gone wrong.
“I had already lost one father,” he said later. “I didn’t want to lose another.”
‘Stop. Think. Observe. Plan.’
A chill swept over Hicks.
The temperature had descended into the 30s, and all that protected him were his jeans, a T-shirt and a thin Harley-Davidson sweatshirt.
Earlier, he had tried to toss Charlemagne’s jacket down to him, but it had landed on the ground beneath the plane’s nose.
Now Charlemagne was dead, and Hicks began to wonder what had gone so wrong. Their plane lacked equipment that could detect dangerous terrain, although not once had the flight instructor consulted an aeronautical chart for the area.
Investigators would later learn that Charlemagne did not take one on the flight.
Every small-plane crash is different. Of the 257 that led to deaths in 2014, many were due to pilots simply losing control, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. But that’s not what happened to Charlemagne, who had inadvertently flown an under-control Cessna into a mountain.
The accident would baffle both the pilots who admired him and the federal investigators who studied it. He had nearly 6,000 hours of experience and, according to the safety board’s later inquiry, showed no signs of distress in the days before his last trip.
“If Bernie was flying, I would go to sleep. He’s conscientious, he’s safety-minded,” said Arthur Chausmer, a physician who knew Charlemagne through the Civil Air Patrol. “Everybody I know makes mistakes.”
But Charlemagne’s mistakes had cost him his life — and left Hicks fighting to escape the same fate.
After half an hour of fishing for his flight jacket with a tree limb, Hicks snagged it. It was wet with fuel, but he still put it on.
Fearing frostbite, he retrieved a white Nike tennis shoe that had come off in the cockpit. His right foot was so swollen that he had to loosen the sneaker’s laces. As he slid it on, his bones crunched. It felt as if he had stepped into a blender.
Still frigid, Hicks spotted a loose piece of carpet in the baggage area above him. He ripped it out and covered his lap.
He remained doubtful that anyone had reported them missing, and yet, he felt a peace. He’d faced death before.
At age 26, two months after he’d been caught driving drunk, Hicks returned to his Maryland apartment drunk again. He hated the person he’d become.
“Trouble,” he said, “just followed me everywhere.”
Hicks smoked PCP and chugged Jack Daniel’s. He slumped onto his hallway floor and put the barrel of a 9mm pistol in his mouth.
His finger curled around the trigger. Seconds passed, but he couldn’t squeeze. Hicks realized he wanted to live.
He opened a phone book and called the first substance-abuse hotline he could find.
During his recovery, a friend took him deer hunting for the first time. Hicks found refuge in the woods and soon began to share his passion at a hunter-safety course, where year after year he taught people how to face crisis. “STOP,” he repeated hundreds of times: “Stop. Think. Observe. Plan.”
But his expertise wasn’t all that buoyed him. Hicks was driven, too, by his sheer orneriness. He hated to relent, ever. “John’s an a-----e,” his brother liked to say, and Hicks never disputed it. That attitude had damaged relationships, including one with his adult daughter, from whom he was estranged, but it had also sustained him through a violent motorcycle crash, a recession that jeopardized his roofing business and the constant temptation to drink or use drugs again.
And so, as his feet turned purple, Hicks concentrated on the night sky, refusing to acknowledge his body’s anguish. And while glimmers passed that he knew were probably satellites, Hicks signaled at them with flashlights for hours, refusing to just sit there. And when he heard the heavy footsteps of an approaching black bear, Hicks screamed and cursed and slammed the tree limb into the side of the Cessna, refusing to live through a plane crash only to die from a mauling.
Hicks made another plan, too: If he wasn’t rescued soon, he would start a massive fire; and if that didn’t work, he would make splints for his legs and rescue himself.
‘There it is’
The sun had just risen when Bob Shiflet’s pager began to beep.
“Aircraft incident,” the dispatcher said, so Shiflet left the northwest Virginia farm where he’d lived all of his 65 years and drove the one mile to the Clover Hill fire station.
Soon, he and another volunteer firefighter, Phil Hoover, headed out in the unit’s Hummer. Each had received calls like this before, but they seldom found anything.
“We kind of thought,” Shiflet said, “we were going on a wild-goose chase.”
Investigators had tracked the plane’s final radar contact, a signal from its emergency transponder and, most critical, a ping off Hicks’s cellphone, which had landed intact just 20 feet uphill from the wreckage.
“Air Force search and rescue is attempting to locate you,” said a message sent to Hicks’s phone at 5:31 a.m.
He had no idea.
Still, the search area was vast. Shiflet and Hoover drove to a clearing at the mountain’s top, then hiked into the forest.
Word that Hicks was missing soon reached his family. In Georgia, his brother, a former Army Ranger who had seen comrades killed in crashes, suspected that Hicks was dead. In Moscow, Bossard read an email and collapsed on the floor of her hotel room.
About 8 a.m. in Virginia, Nolan Dean, a retired locksmith, got a call from the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office — a small plane may have gone down near him. The 67-year-old wheeled a Cessna 150 out of his spacious garage and, joined by a deputy, took off. He had planned to ascend to 5,000 feet and fly in widening circles, but as the morning sunlight washed over a distant mountainside, something shiny caught his eye.
Through leafless trees, the wrecked plane came into view.
“There it is,” Dean said, relieved that they’d found it so quickly, but certain no one could have survived the crash.
Dean was soon joined in the air by an Air Care helicopter. Nearing the wreckage, the crew spotted movement.
Zeb Lilly, a paramedic onboard, was stunned.
“We’re being signaled by a survivor of the crash,” the 33-year-old radioed to the rescue teams on the ground.
With the coordinates recorded, both aircraft left.
On the ground, Hicks was convinced the plane and helicopter crews hadn’t seen him.
“That,” he said, “was the epitome of despair.”
News of a survivor invigorated Shiflet and Hoover, who drove halfway down the mountain, where a Rockingham fire captain had mapped a path to the site.
The pair set off around 9, faced with a brutal mile-plus hike up a 30-degree slope. Every four minutes, their radio sent a signal to the firefighter tracking their course.
“Bear left,” he told them again and again.
Hicks heard voices in the distance. He screamed and whistled, but no one replied. What if, even now, they couldn’t find him? The thought was overwhelming.
Then, suddenly, Hoover appeared from around a wing of the plane.
For a moment, Hicks struggled to process it. His chest pulsed. Finally, he smiled.
Was he okay, the firefighter asked?
Both of his legs were broken and maybe an arm, Hicks told him.
Had anyone else survived?
“Bernie didn’t make it,” Hicks said, and at last he began to sob.
An air traffic controller looks out over the airfield at the Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland in 2013. Bernie Charlemagne and John Hicks used the airport while Charlemagne was teaching Hicks to fly.
‘Just grateful to be here’
Two years later, Hicks shuffled across the driveway and eased into a white Chevrolet TrailBlazer.
Around both ankles, which he could no longer bend, were white streaks from two surgeries that left cadaver bone with eight screws in his left leg and two titanium plates with 14 screws in his right.
“Today is not a good day,” he said. “The cold, I can feel it.”
Usually, Hicks carried a purple pill case packed with Celebrex for arthritis, Lyrica for nerve damage and Percocet for the ache in his legs and his back, because two vertebrae had cracked on impact.
But Hicks needed a new painkiller prescription, so he had returned to Maryland from his home in Florida, where the warm weather allayed his discomfort.
He turned onto Interstate 70, and as the SUV cleared a line of trees coated in fall foliage, the Frederick airport appeared on his right. Hicks glanced over, as he always did. Goosebumps coated his skin.
The nightmares had begun in the hospital. Sometimes, he imagined being trapped in the cockpit again. Other times, he heard Charlemagne’s voice.
He would wake suddenly, gasping and with eyes wide. During his two weeks in the hospital, Hicks asked his fiancee and brother never to leave him alone.
Charlemagne’s wife called him there, and Hicks recounted her husband’s last words. It was the first time Bossard had ever seen him cry.
The crash emotionally rewired Hicks. On his boat dock in Florida, he would catch himself breaking down at the thought of his mother, who died 11 months after his rescue, or his daughter, with whom he still hadn’t reconciled.
He pulled into his doctor’s office and limped inside, where a nurse tested his blood pressure.
“It says I’m going to live, right?” he asked, then laughed.
“Yes, you’re going to live,” she said, smiling.
Humor, he had found, was therapeutic. In disagreements with Bossard, he liked to play the “plane crash card” for sympathy. “Nothing,” he’d argue, “trumps that.”
“I’m just grateful to be here,” he often said, as much for himself as anyone else.
After his rescue, it had taken him three months to walk again and a year, with the aid of a cane, to go with JB to a Washington Capitals game. On some mornings, his feet throbbed with such intensity that he needed 20 minutes to get from the bed to the bathroom.
An insurance settlement from the flight center allowed him to pay off his more-than $200,000 in medical bills, move to Florida and buy a boat and a Sierra Denali pickup.
Doctors told him he’d never work on roofs again, so he started a company, South Florida Arms, selling guns. Business is slow, but he hasn’t given up.
Hicks got his prescription from the doctor and drove toward home. On the way, he took a detour, pulling into a parking spot that faced the Frederick runways. On a chain-link fence in front of him hung a tattered, windblown sign: “LEARN TO FLY.”
“I think I’ll never do it again,” he murmured.
Hicks couldn’t pilot a plane while on such powerful medications, but he still loved the idea of flying. That feeling had brought him back to the airport time and again.
Hicks watched a man walk toward a four-seat Piper with a maroon underbelly. He nodded at it.
“I flew that with Bernie,” he said.
Hicks had memorized what came next: preflight check, radio the tower, taxi to the runway.
A different plane took off, then another and another. Hicks waited. At last the Piper sped down the runway and lifted into the air, soaring toward a cloudless blue sky.
Original article can be found here: https://www.washingtonpost.com
James “JB” Bossard, left, John Hicks and Michele Bossard in Frederick, Md., in spring 2015. John Hicks survived a small-plane crash in 2014.
VICTOR TANGO AVIATION LLC: http://registry.faa.gov/N2152T
National Transportation Safety Board - Aviation Accident Final Report: http://app.ntsb.gov/pdf
Docket And Docket Items - National Transportation Safety Board: http://dms.ntsb.gov/pubdms
Aviation Accident Data Summary - National Transportation Safety Board: http://app.ntsb.gov/pdf
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Saturday, November 08, 2014 in Hinton, VA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 02/08/2016
Aircraft: CESSNA 172, registration: N2152T
Injuries: 1 Fatal, 1 Serious.
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.
The student pilot had planned the instructional cross-country flight from his home base airport to another airport about 100 miles away with an intermediate stop to practice landings. However, just before departure, the flight instructor changed the destination to a different airport that was located further away and in mountainous terrain; however, he did not provide the student pilot time to plan the new flight route. No flight plan was filed nor was there any record of flight following for the accident flight. After conducting several landings at the intermediate airport, the flight proceeded toward the destination; the sun had set at this time. The instructor told the student to fly a heading of 240 degrees at 3,000 ft mean sea level (msl). The student asked the instructor about terrain elevation in the area, and the instructor responded that he was not certain of the elevations because the airplane was not equipped with a G-1000 navigation system. The student pilot reported that there were no aeronautical charts readily accessible while in flight to reference terrain elevation, and no aeronautical charts associated with the accident area were found in the accident airplane during postaccident examination. The aeronautical chart for the area showed a maximum elevation of 5,100 ft, and a mountain near the accident location with an elevation of 3,700 ft. The instructor then began to demonstrate the autopilot to the student, including various climb rates. The student stated that the airspeed began to decline and he asked the instructor if he should add power, which the instructor did. The student reported that the engine was operating normally and responded to power inputs. However, shortly thereafter, the airplane impacted a mountain at an elevation of about 3,100 feet msl, which was about 300 feet below the mountain peak. Ground scar and wreckage information indicated that the airplane impacted the terrain in a wings-level attitude on a near horizontal flight path.
Postaccident examination of the airframe and engine revealed no evidence of any preimpact mechanical malfunctions or failures that would have precluded normal operation. Given the lack of onboard navigation charts for the area, the dark night conditions, and the instructor’s decision to change the destination and not conduct preflight planning for that leg of the flight, the pilots were likely not aware of the altitude of the surrounding terrain, which resulted in controlled flight into rising terrain.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
The flight instructor’s decision to conduct a night training flight in mountainous terrain without conducting or allowing the student to conduct appropriate preflight planning and his lack of situational awareness of the surrounding terrain altitude, which resulted in controlled flight into terrain.
HISTORY OF FLIGHT
On November 8, 2014, about 1822 eastern standard time, a Cessna 172S, N2152T, was substantially damaged when it impacted trees and the ground in the George Washington National Forest, near Hinton, Virginia. Night visual meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plan was filed. The certificated flight instructor (CFI) was fatally injured and the student pilot received serious injuries. The instructional flight was conducted under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. The flight had departed from the Winchester Airport (OKV), Winchester, Virginia, after reportedly performing at least one touch and go landing maneuver and the intended destination was Ingalls Field Airport (HSP), Hot Springs, Virginia.
According to the student pilot, the flight was originally scheduled in a G-1000 equipped Cessna 172; however, the night before the accident flight that airplane was not available and the flight was scheduled in an instrument flight rules (IFR) equipped Cessna 172, which was the accident airplane. The CFI requested the student pilot to plan a flight from Frederick Municipal Airport (FDK), Frederick, Maryland, to OKV for pattern work, then to Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport (CHO), Charlottesville, Virginia, with a return to FDK.
On the day of the accident the student submitted the flight plan to the CFI who did not indicate any issue with or any change to the plan. The student pilot and CFI met at 1600 at FDK, at which time the CFI told the student there would be a destination change. Instead of going to CHO, the CFI changed the destination to HSP. The CFI did not require the student pilot to conduct any preflight planning specific to the new route.
The flight departed FDK about 1700. While enroute the CFI instructed the student to navigate to the Martinsburg VOR. After reaching the Martinsburg VOR the CFI gave the student a heading toward OKV where "stop and go" landings were performed. After conducting several landings at OKV the CFI, assigned the student a heading of 240 degrees and an altitude of 3,000 feet mean sea level (msl).
The student reported that while enroute he queried the CFI about terrain elevation in the area to which the CFI replied that he did not know the specific terrain elevation because "the aircraft did not have the G-1000." The student pilot further reported there were no aeronautical charts "out for immediate reference." About 68 miles from their intended destination the CFI conducted a demonstration of the autopilot to which he established an "altitude hold at 3,000" feet. Various heading changes were demonstrated as well as a climb at 200 feet per minute and then a 500 foot per minute climb. The student pilot reported that just prior to the accident, he observed the airspeed decrease from their cruise airspeed of 120 knots to 90 knots, at which point the CFI applied full-power. Subsequently, the airplane impacted terrain. The student further reported that it was "pitch black outside" and that the engine responded "normally" to the full power application.
No flight plan had been filed, nor communication established with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Traffic Control prior to or during the flight.
According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and flight school records, the CFI, age 49, held an airline transport pilot certificate issued August 5, 2010, with a rating for airplane single-engine land, multiengine land, helicopter, and a commercial pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine sea, airplane multiengine sea, and glider. He also held a flight instructor certificate for airplane single-engine, multiengine, and instrument, and glider. He held a first-class medical certificate, which was issued on December 19, 2013, and had a restriction of "must wear corrective lenses." According to a copy of his pilot logbook, the most recent recorded entry was dated October 28, 2014, at that time the pilot had 5,941.1 total flight hours with 1,182.2 hours as a flight instructor, and 410.7 total hours at night. His most recent flight review was conducted on October 9, 2014.
According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and student pilot's records, the student pilot, age 51, was issued a third-class medical certificate, which was also his student pilot certificate, on September 15, 2014. According to his pilot logbook, his first entry was dated August 20, 2014, and the most recent entry was dated October 27, 2014. At the time of the most recent logbook entry, the pilot had 23.8 total flight hours with 22.5 of those in the airplane accident make and model. It also indicated that the student pilot had not performed a solo flight and 4.5 total flight hours were conducted at night.
According to FAA records, the airplane, serial number 172S9446, was issued an airworthiness certificate on July 30, 2003, and was registered to Victor Tango LLC on May 12, 2006. It was powered by a Lycoming IO-360-L2A engine, Serial number L-30073-51A, 180-hp engine. It was driven by a McCauley IA 170E propeller. The airplane's most recent phase III inspection was completed on September 11, 2014. At the time of the inspection the airplane's total time in service was 4,263.3 hours and a recorded tachometer of 1,284.7 hours. The engine was overhauled and reinstalled in the airplane on September 11, 2014, and its most recent logbook entry was dated October 7, 2014, was recorded as a 24-hour oil change. At the time of the entry the engine had accrued 4,001.6 hours total time in service, 23.1 flight hours since overhaul, and had a record tachometer time of 1,307.8 hours. The tachometer was located at the accident site and indicated 1,328.2 hours.
The 1815 recorded weather observation at Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport (SHD), Staunton/Waynesboro/Harrisonburg, Virginia, approximately 18 miles to the south, included wind from 190 degrees at 6 knots, 10 miles visibility, clear skies, temperature 8 degrees C, dew point minus 1 degrees C; barometric altimeter 29.93 inches of mercury.
Sun and Moon Data
According to the United States Naval Observatory, on the day of the accident sunset occurred at 1709 and the end of civil twilight occurred at 1736. Moon rise occurred at 1849 with 96% of the Moon's disc would have been illuminated.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
The airplane impacted the side of a mountain approximately 3100 feet above msl, which was about 300 feet below the top of the ridgeline. The accident location was at 38°33.14 N and 079° 00.54 W. The debris path was oriented on a 212 degree (true) heading, began with impact to a row of trees approximately 100 feet northwest of the main wreckage, and started with a section of the right aileron located about 25 feet from the main wreckage, along the centerline. A log with a fresh cut of 45 degrees with some red paint transfer was located along the debris path. The left wingtip was located about 25 feet from the main wreckage, and about 20 feet to the right of centerline. A silver metallic groundscar, on a rock, the end of the debris path centerline and a broken section of one propeller blade was found 1 foot from the groundscar. The main wreckage was located about 20 feet downhill leaning against a tree in a near vertical attitude.
The nose section, including the cockpit, exhibited impact crushing and the engine remained attached to the associated airframe attach points; however, both bottom mounts and the right upper mount were impact damaged. The engine remained attached to the firewall, which remained attached to the airframe; however, the engine mounting structure was bent in the negative and aft direction and was in contact with the underside of the airplane. The propeller remained attached to the engine; however, one propeller blade was impact separated approximately mid span and located near the initial impact point. The propeller exhibited chordwise scratches and curling on the outboard section; however, the tip was impact separated and unable to be located at the accident site. The No. 1 and 3 top and bottom spark plugs were removed, appeared to be light gray in color, and were normal in wear exhibiting low in use time when compared with the Champion Check-A-Plug chart. Fluid was evident at the accident site and was visibly noted as dripping from the secured fuel cap on the left wing, the right wing was devoid of fuel; however, it had been breached due to impact damage. The fluid was similar in color and smell as 100LL aviation fuel.
The right wing exhibited impact crush damage, along the entire span. The flaps remained attached at their respective attach points and track rollers. The flap push rod remained attached to the bellcrank, which remained attached to the flap. The flap cable exhibited tensile overload similar in appearance to broomstrawing, however, cable continuity was confirmed with all exposed areas. The inboard section of the aileron remained attached and cable continuity was confirmed from the base of the control column through the associated fracture points out to the aileron. The outboard section of the aileron was located along the debris path and had been impact separated. The right wing's fuel caps remained attached, seated correctly, and locked in position; however, the right wing fuel tank was breached and devoid of fuel.
Rudder continuity was confirmed from just aft of the rudder pedals through the tail section to the rudder; however it could not be determined at the rudder pedals due to aft crush damage of the forward cockpit section. The tail was fractured about fuselage station 110. The tail section was leaning to the right side of the airplane and connected by the right side sheet metal skin. The rudder and elevator remained attached; however, continuity could not be confirmed to the elevator, due to binding of the cable in the tail section. The trim tab actuator was not accessed due to the precarious position of the vertical placement of the tail on the cliff face.
The left wing exhibited extensive crush and impact damage along the entire span. The fuel tank contained an undetermined amount of fuel, the fuel cap remained in place and seated. The wing remained attached to the fuselage at the attach point, aileron continuity was confirmed from the door post to the aileron and exhibited tensile overload (broomstrawing). All control surfaces remained attached to the wing structure. The flap push rod remained attached to the bellcrank; however, the control cable exhibited tensile overload.
The cockpit exhibited impact and crush damage in the positive and right direction. The flight control column was intact and the cables were in the as intended position, around the respective pulley.
Both front seats remained attached to the seat rails, the four locking pins remained in position for the two front seats. The left seat rails separated from the floor at the rivet points but remained attached to the seats. The right seatbelt and shoulder harness were cut by first responders. The fuel selector valve was found in the "BOTH" tank position and the fuel shutoff valve was in. The elevator trim could not be determined to the damage in the cockpit. The engine controls were found with the throttle and mixture control in the full forward position.
The flap handle was in the "UP" position and the indicator revealed zero degree position. The flap actuator was observed with no exposed threads which correlated to a flaps 0 degree setting.
In addition to on-scene examination of the wreckage, the recovered airframe and engine were examined at a recovery facility several weeks later. All damage was consistent with impact damage. The observed evidence was consistent with the flaps retracted and the engine operating normally, at impact. No evidence of any pre-impact mechanical malfunctions were noted during either examination. A detailed report of the engine examination following recovery, titled "Engine and Empennage Examination" is located in the docket associated with this accident.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
An autopsy was performed on the CFI on November 10, 2014, by the Department of Health Office of the Chief Medical Examiner as authorized by the Medical Examiner of Rockingham County. The cause of death was reported as "Blunt injuries" and the report listed the specific injuries.
Forensic toxicology was performed on specimens from the CFI by the FAA Bioaeronautical Sciences Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The toxicology report stated no carbon monoxide detected in the blood, no ethanol was detected in Vitreous, and no drugs were detected in the urine.
After the airplane had not returned to its home base airport, a search and rescue operation was initiated the following morning after being reported by the student pilot's father. The airplane was located later that day, in a remote area of the George Washington National Forest. According to FAA records, several reports of an ELT signal being audibly heard were reported to an FAA Air Traffic Control Radar facility. The reports were passed from the receiving controller to their direct supervisor; however, for unknown reasons the supervisor did not investigate the reports further nor report the signal to search and rescue personnel until the following day, after the airplane was reported as overdue. The ELT was found at the accident site connected to the antenna and the "ON" light was illuminated. The ELT was later tested and emitted an audible tone.
Air Traffic Organization Policy Order JO 7110.65V
Chapter 10-2-10 "Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) Signals" states in part "When an ELT signal is heard or reported:
a. EN ROUTE. Notify the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC)
b. Terminal. Notify the ARTCC [Air Route Traffic Control Center] which will coordinate with the RCC.
c. Terminal. Attempt to obtain fixes or bearings on the signal
d. Solicit the assistance of other aircraft known to be operating in the signal area
e. TERMINAL. Forward fixes or bearings and any other pertinent information to the ARTCC…"
Charting and Obstructions
Review of the airplane's route of flight revealed that the pilots had selected a direct route of flight from OKV to HSP, which brought them into proximity of rising terrain and obstructions within a Designated Mountainous Area, at their selected cruise altitude of 3,000 feet msl.
Review of the Cincinnati Sectional Aeronautical Chart revealed that the quadrangle bounded by the ticked lines of latitude and longitude surround the accident site contained a maximum elevation figure of 5,100 feet msl. That figure was based on information concerning the highest known feature in the quadrangle, including terrain and obstructions. The area in the vicinity of the accident location also included an elevation mark of 3,700 feet msl.
Onboard Aeronautical Charts
During the examination of the wreckage a search for aeronautical charts revealed that the Washington Sectional chart was the only chart located and was found folded and was in the CFI's flight bag, located within the wreckage.
Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT)
According to FAA information, CFIT accidents account for 17 percent of all general aviation fatalities. The FAA defines a CFIT accident as a situation that occurs when a properly functioning aircraft "is flown under the control of a qualified pilot, into terrain (water or obstacles) with inadequate awareness on the part of the pilot of the impending collision."
NTSB CFIT Safety Alert
In January 2008, the NTSB issued a Safety Alert (SA) entitled "Controlled Flight Into Terrain in Visual Conditions" with the subheading "Nighttime Visual Flight Operations are Resulting in Avoidable Accidents." The SA stated that recent investigations identified several accident that involved CFIT by pilots operating under visual flight conditions at night in remote areas, that the pilots appeared unaware that the aircraft were in danger, and that increased altitude awareness and better preflight planning likely would have prevented the accidents.
The SA suggested that pilots could avoid becoming involved in a similar accident by accomplishing several actions, including
- Proper preflight planning
- Obtaining flight route terrain familiarization via sectional charts or other topographic references
- Maintaining awareness of visual limitations for operations in remote areas
- Following IFR practices until well above surrounding terrain
- Advising ATC about potential inability to avoid terrain
- Employing a GPS-based terrain awareness unit
Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (FAA-H-8083-25A)
Chapter 17, defined situational awareness as the "accurate perception of the operational and environmental factors that affect the airplane, pilot, and passengers during a specific period of time." It goes on to state that a situationally aware pilot "has an overview of the total operation and is not fixated on one perceived significant factor…some of the elements inside the airplane to be considered are the status of airplane systems, and also the pilot and passengers." The chapter goes on to state and cautioned that "an awareness of the environmental condition of the flight, such as spatial orientation of the airplane, and its relationship to terrain, traffic, weather, and airspace must be maintained."