Thursday, July 02, 2020

Piper PA-32R-301T Saratoga II TC, N315AM: Fatal accident occurred June 27, 2020 in Zavalla, Angelina County, Texas

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. 

The National Transportation Safety Board did not travel to the scene of this accident.

Additional Participating Entities:
Federal Aviation Administration / Flight Standards District Office; Houston, Texas
Piper Aircraft; Vero Beach, Florida 

Location: Zavalla, TX
Accident Number: CEN20LA248
Date & Time: 06/27/2020, 0153 CDT
Registration: N315AM
Aircraft: Piper PA32R
Injuries: 1 Fatal
Flight Conducted Under: Part 91: General Aviation - Personal 

On June 27, 2020, about 0153 central daylight time, a Piper PA-32R airplane, N315AM, was destroyed when it was involved in an accident at a private airstrip near Zavalla, Texas. The non-certificated pilot was fatally injured. The airplane was operated as a Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 personal flight.

According to air traffic control information, the airplane departed David Wayne Hooks Memorial Airport (DWH), Spring Texas, at 0023 and arrived overhead the airstrip at 0059. During the next 54 minutes, the airplane maneuvered near the airstrip between 350 and 1,300 ft above ground level (agl), with a groundspeed ranging from 65 to 143 knots. The airplane was last recorded at 350 ft agl and 94 knots ground speed.

The airplane impacted trees 670 ft north of the southwest oriented runway threshold and came to rest 375 ft southeast of the initial impact. A post-crash fire ensued. Examination of the airframe and engine revealed no evidence of mechanical malfunctions or failures that would have precluded normal operation. 

Aircraft and Owner/Operator Information

Aircraft Make: Piper
Registration: N315AM
Model/Series:PA32R 301T 
Aircraft Category: Airplane
Amateur Built: No
Operator: On file
Operating Certificate(s) Held: None

Meteorological Information and Flight Plan

Conditions at Accident Site: Instrument Conditions
Condition of Light: Night
Observation Facility, Elevation: KJAS, 213 ft msl
Observation Time: 0155 CDT
Distance from Accident Site: 24 Nautical Miles
Temperature/Dew Point: 26°C / 26°C
Lowest Cloud Condition:
Wind Speed/Gusts, Direction: 3 knots / , 150°
Lowest Ceiling: Overcast / 600 ft agl
Visibility:  7 Miles
Altimeter Setting: 30.1 inches Hg
Type of Flight Plan Filed: None
Departure Point: Houston, TX (DWH)
Destination: Zavalla, TX (PRIV) 

Wreckage and Impact Information

Crew Injuries: 1 Fatal
Aircraft Damage: Destroyed
Passenger Injuries: N/A
Aircraft Fire: On-Ground
Ground Injuries: N/A
Aircraft Explosion: Unknown
Total Injuries: 1 Fatal
Latitude, Longitude: 31.187500, -94.340833 (est)

Those who may have information that might be relevant to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation may contact them by email, and any friends and family who want to contact investigators about the accident should email

James Duke VanLue, 40, of Tomball died June 27th, 2020, in Zavalla. Mr. VanLue was born June 20, 1980, in Tomball. Cremation arrangements are under the direction of Carroway Funeral Home. 

One person is dead following an airplane crash that is believed to have occurred in the early hours of Saturday morning, east of Zavalla, not far from Lake Sam Rayburn.

Sergeant David Hendry of the Texas Department of Public Safety at Lufkin said the crash occurred at around 2:00 as the aircraft was attempting to land on a private airfield just east of State Highway 147.

According to Hendry, the Piper PA-32R-301T Saratoga II TC, which was piloted by James Duke VanLue, 40, of Tomball, apparently struck trees on the north side of the airfield. However, what caused the crash is not known and the incident is under investigation by officials of the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Reliable sources in the aviation community say VanLue left David Wayne Hooks Airport in Tomball at or around midnight on Friday in a Piper PA-32R-301T Saratoga II TC with plans of heading to the private field near Lake Rayburn. However, he never arrived and it was not until after noon on Saturday before the wreckage was found.

Hendry said VanLue was pronounced dead at the scene by an Angelina County Justice of the Peace.


  1. Airmen database shows December 2016 third class medical, but no pilot certificate. Opted out of address and had Flightaware set to private/no track mode.

    Wonder what was being done with the airplane for four years, and what the Friday night/Saturday morning flight was all about. Moon tables show that the moon illumination was set (gone) just before 1 AM. Google image of the private field shows nice paved strip, not on charts:

    1. It looks like just normal going to the beach house that is about 2 hours away by car vs 40 minutes by aircraft.

  2. No license in IMC conditions. Bold move Cotton ...

  3. Was he out of his mind???????????? Operating a complex, high performance aircraft in the middle of the night in IMC with no certificate, sad

  4. No moon, no lights on the strip that I can see, how was he planning on landing? Was he circling, waiting for someone to show up with headlights, and they didn't? Very strange.

  5. Lot of lawsuits in the not too distant past.

  6. Based on how white the concrete is this airstrip seems to be relatively new.

    Buried in the woods on the edge of a lake, hmmm.

    1. Can't tell if it's "caliche" or concrete. He bought some other property in the area besides the land the strip was on in the past few years. Strange, some type of parlay anticipating what? ATC might have records of that aircraft test flying that self built approach in day VFR.

    2. Aerial photo indicates pour lines for concrete. That's an expensive private runway.

    3. He sold his company for $152 million in 2016.

    4. Well, he sold his interest in Down Hole Tech, a company he founded, 2 years before that $152 million sale but he was apparently still employed by the Austrian company that bought DHT. Well, he was till he got fired but then he sued them.

  7. Autopsy report might be telling. Was he drunk, or just stupid?

  8. Not only is the pilot without any certificate, the aircraft has expired registration as well.

  9. “Lord what fools these mortals be”
    “Oh brave world that has such creatures in it”
    — William Shakespeare

  10. Looks like this is the same upstanding citizen who crashed:

    1. That was back in 2003 when he was in his early 20's.....Would you want us to judge you based on a small mistake you made in your past? The charge was for providing alcohol to a minor. Geez..

    2. Waiting for information from US Dept of Justice, Denver, Colorado

    3. "That was back in 2003 when he was in his early 20's".
      Given that he didn't have a ticket, and he crashed under these circumstance, it appears that his pattern of conduct and thought process didn't change. He apparently thought the rules were of others. So, yes - in this instance - it is relevant 20 years later.

    4. Happens easily enough when you are having a Texas BBQ party and the neighbors complain, officers come out and some 17 year old has taken a beer from the cooler instead of a cola, host gets in trouble. Doesn't indicate a lifetime of crime.

    5. Reading some of these negative comments above are just words in a post from people that didn't have the privilege to know this great man. It was a blessing to know Duke VanLue. He achieved more than ten men could in a lifetime. He was truly amazing and and an inspiration to so many. I am truly blessed to be one of the many that without ever meeting Duke, my life would not be what it is today.

    6. Yes,he was so amazing he didn’t need a licence like all other mortals...
      Looks like he didn’t have much regard for rules and regulations stemming from that time he was ‘caught’... Hope he wasn’t an inspiration for all the wrong reasons.
      Just another nail in the coffin for GA

    7. I would love to see you actually post your name along with the bold and insensitive comments you're leaving about someone you didn't even know. You're just another keyboard warrior that feels so entitled behind a screen. Own your words that his family and friends can now see. Grow a pair.

    8. The jury spoke, guilty on all counts.
      Non-certificated pilot at the yoke is still a federal crime, last I checked.

    9. Non certified pilot, out of registered aircraft. PERIOD AND END OF DISCUSSION FOR ANY FRIEND OF THIS DEAD PILOT.

      --Licensed pilot

    10. Prelim shows flying around the airstrip for almost an hour in complete darkness at 1 in the morning ... in an unregistered aircraft as an unlicensed pilot ??
      I am not a pilot nor do I believe in speaking ill of those who have passed on .. but that seems quite reckless to me ... RIP

  11. He had a nice piper. Here is a Youtube video of N315AM, apparently recorded before he owned it but posted in 2017. Exterior and cabin views about 12 seconds in, with good view of panel at 2:01 time:

    1. Yes, it was a beautiful, fully equipped Saratoga. May the pilot rest in peace. I recorded that video in November of 2012 when I had the privilege of flying N315AM under Part 135.

    2. So with that hardware would you envision a self built approach to to an unlighted strip at night. I'm thinking it would be doable but scary. The question is why do it.

    3. I would never underestimate the resourcefulness and risk tolerance of someone who chooses to fly an airplane without being certificated.

    4. Keep in mind that Google photography is not necessarily recent, so he may have had lighting installed recently that would have sufficed if the weather had not socked it in.

      The pilot was an oil patch guy who reportedly grew up from humble beginnings and created tooling that earned him financial success. It takes a strong personality to make that happen. Resourceful and made that decision of whether his skill was adequate for the short flight to his lake place.

      Why go at midnight? Tower at his departure airport closes at 10 pm.

    5. It was his very nice lake property that he was flying to. The Angelina County property records show several adjacent parcels associated with his Tomball address. They make up into a nice big property along highway 147 including lake access. Main building is pinned at link below, with boating access and plenty of room:

    6. Corrected link for main building (http was missing):

  12. "Why go at midnight? Tower at his departure airport closes at 10 pm"

    He was not afraid of ramp check. Just look at N670SR (the other oil guy with no certificate that killed himself and his son). N670SR departed during day time from an airport with 1 9000 foot runway and a second 8000 foot runway.

    1. Yes, but N670SR didn't have an expired aircraft registration, so interaction with ATC using the N-number was no risk in that regard. N315AM's registration had expired end of January 2020.

      Presumably, there is some chance that the expired N-number status would be visible in the systems used by ATC. Wouldn't need a ramp check to get caught flying the expired / unregistered plane.

      Of course, the identifier tied to the ADS-B data is part of the N-number registration info, so even going without comm won't prevent getting a notice in the mail that the plane had showed up as airborne while expired.

    2. Unless he shut the transponder off.

  13. I doubt a rich busy guy would even know that his aircraft has expired registrations.

    1. Oh I'm sure he knew. He just didn't care like so many of these dead rich pilot stories with no FAA license who think rules don't apply to them because they have money. Then of course you have the crying friends of the deceased lambasting we pilots who are calling out the idiot. What idiot is next to the plate who will ignore law and rules and crash and we'll be repeating the same lambasting on KR while his friends cry about our comments?

    2. Well, one anonymous is arguing that the pilot took off in the middle of the night because he feared ramp checks and expired registrations.

      We have another anonymous arguing that he is sure that the pilot knew that he had expired registrations and that he flew anyway despite no certificate and expired aircraft registrations.

      They don't really mix. Either he didn't care and would have taken off in the middle of the day.

      You mean to tell me that he cheapened out the $5 renewal fee and had to resign to flying in the middle of the night and can even enjoy looking out the window to see his flying.

  14. Hey Anonymous, why don't you keep your lambasting to yourself. Did you even know him? I bet not, if you did you wouldn't be lambasting him. He was a great guy and he made a big impact on a lot of people including myself and the people I work with. He may not have always made the best choices in his life but who does, not you, not me. He flew that night under all the circumstances whether they were right or wrong and paid an unfortunate price, but you don't know his reasons, you don't know anything about him. He did pretty well for himself up until then for being such an so called idiot. He's definitely in a better place now, that's for sure.

    1. @JW - You probably know that the "anonymous" identifier is not all the same person. Most who comment on KR are interested in understanding what happened instead of just being demeaning, but some can be brutal.

      Since you knew him, do you know if he was flying with an instructor up to some point and just didn't finish? He wouldn't have needed to get his medical in 2016 if he never intended to get a certificate.

      It was a sad outcome that he was not able to carry through to completion and fully enjoy the lake place and private airstrip as a licensed pilot, whatever the reasons.

    2. Yes I realize that, I commented instead of replying. I believe he did have one but not sure for how long.

    3. Just looking at various public information, you can see what happened.

      He sold his company for big money in 2016, kept working for the new owner after the sale, bought a plane and started flying lessons. He got existing secretaries to handle the paper work.

      He got into disagreements with the new owners, got fired, and he sued the new owners in court (unsuccessfully). His flying lessons were disrupted (therefore no certificate at this point). His paper work were a mess because he didn't have secretaries to handle them (therefore his aircraft got expired registration).

      I think that he got a wife and young kids. And he was probably busy working on his next startup.

      We don't know if he ever carried passengers on the aircraft before. So he was legal to fly around alone if he got endorsements for solo from his CFI (even night vfr). But it was night imc and his aircraft is not legal.

    4. ... continued

      Basically, there was a tiny chance that he thought he was completely legal. He thought his medical is 5 years so his aircraft registration is 5 years. He wasn't carrying passengers. He got CFI endorsement for solo and maybe even night solo.

    5. ^^^^ Kind of bold to include the content projected with "I think", "Probably", "He thought" and "He got CFI endorsement..." in those two posts above, supposedly from public information surfing.

      No search results show those embellishments, or anything at all about "secretaries". Renewal notices for the expiring aircraft registration are mailed, so no reason to invent "he thought" statements about that expiration.

    6. I never said that it was likely the case, I said a TINY CHANCE that it could happen.

  15. Mr. VanLue may have been a nice guy, a good friend to many, a brilliant guy in business and his craft. He was NOT, however, a forward thinking pilot, correction...unlicensed pilot. This has happened to too many brilliant people in the world. Whether he had instruction years before is irrelevant to the accident. Mr. VanLue should not have been in the air AT ALL. PERIOD.

  16. The airplane was also out of annual at the time of the accident.

  17. BTW, he won the wrongful termination lawsuit, in the amount of $134MM.

    I would like to think he was in the process of getting his PPL and was cleared to fly solo.

    I am a pilot and with the training I've had I would have never attempted that landing, just go back or land at an airport you can see the runway.

    One thing about being an entrepreneur, most of your life people tell you how things can't be done. Those who think they can't be done are correct.
    We on the other hand know anything can be done. It's likely he figured he knew the place like the back of his hand and it was a non issue. What he didn't realize was those darn trees which aren't that big of a deal VFR are crazy scary when you can't see them at night.

    It's unfortunate he had to learn the hard way. Now that he's won the lawsuit I'm hopeful it will bring some peace to his family.

    I never had the privilege of meeting him, but oh, how I wish we could have gotten to know each other. May God bless him and his family.