Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Piper PA-20-135 Pacer, N7323K: Fatal accident occurred August 31, 2020 in Luray, Virginia

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 Entity: 
Federal Aviation Administration / Flight Standards District Office; Washington, District of Columbia

Location: Luray, VA
Accident Number: ERA20LA305
Date & Time: 08/31/2020, 1900 EDT
Registration: N7323K
Aircraft: Piper PA 20-135
Injuries:1 Fatal 
Flight Conducted Under: Part 91: General Aviation - Personal 

On August 31, 2020, about 1900 eastern daylight time, a Piper PA-20-135 airplane, N7323K, was destroyed when it impacted trees and terrain near Luray, Virginia. The private pilot was fatally injured. The airplane was operated by the pilot as a personal flight conducted under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.

According to a fixed-base operator (FBO) employee at Maryland Airport (2W5), Indian Head, Maryland who had discussions with the accident pilot, the pilot had arrived a day or two prior to the accident and stayed in the local area. The pilot was reportedly on a "tour of the 48" lower United States and several weeks ago he departed from California for the cross-country trip. On the afternoon of the accident, the pilot discussed with the FBO employee and other pilots at the airport, that he planned to depart for Eastern WV Regional Airport/Shepherd Field (MRB), Martinsburg, West Virginia.

The FBO employee reported that the pilot had been "waiting for the weather to clear" and he was looking at "storms" on his iPad along the route. The pilot was also reportedly concerned with the terrain and cloud ceilings along the route; his "biggest concern was [cloud] ceilings." The FBO employee reported that he and other pilots at the airport advised the pilot that he should not depart along the route, and when the FBO employee closed the FBO office and left the airport at 1800, the pilot had not departed.

According to Leidos Flight Service, there was no record that the pilot received a weather briefing on the day of the accident.

Review of preliminary Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) radar track data revealed that the accident airplane departed runway 20 at 2W5 at 1819. Figure 1 shows the airplane's complete flight track overlaid on a visual flight rules sectional chart. The red line depicts the airplane's westbound flight track.

Figure 1: Overview of the complete flight track

At 1858:00 the airplane was flying westbound at an altitude of 4,500 ft mean sea level (msl) over the Shenandoah National Park with mountainous terrain that ranged in elevation from about 3,000 to 4,000 ft. About 15 seconds later the airplane began a descending and rapidly accelerating, left spiral turn that became increasingly tighter in radius. At 1859:32 the final recorded position indicated the airplane was headed 276°, at 3,400 ft msl, at 134 knots groundspeed, and was about ¼ nautical mile east of where the main wreckage came to rest. Figure 2 shows roughly the final three minutes of the flight track. The magenta line represents the flight track and the white arrows denote the direction of travel.

Figure 2: Overview of the final three minutes of the flight track and a marking of the main wreckage

The wreckage was located by hikers who were hiking off the Buck Hollow Trail in the Shenandoah National Park about 1100, on Wednesday, September 2, 2020. The pilot was not in communication with air traffic control at the time of the accident and no emergency locator signal was received from the airplane.

According to FAA airman records, the pilot held a private pilot certificate with a rating for airplane single-engine land. He did not hold an instrument rating. The pilot was issued an FAA third-class medical certificate July 18, 2018 where he reported a total of 4 hours of flight time.

According to a FAA inspector who traveled to the accident site, the main wreckage was located at the bottom of a steep ravine in heavily wooded terrain and scattered in a southerly direction. The elevation of the accident site was 2,300 feet. The cockpit, wings, and fuselage were heavily fragmented and were not easily identifiable to their original structures. The propeller had separated from its hub and was found in the debris field; it displayed significant s-bending, leading edge gouging, and chordwise scratching. There was no evidence of fire. The rudder remained attached to the vertical stabilizer and the left and right elevators remained attached to the horizontal stabilizer. The wreckage was retained for further examination.

Luray Caverns Airport (LUA), Luray, Virginia, was located about 9 miles west of the accident site, in a valley on the western side of the ridge relative to where the accident site was located. The 1855 recorded weather observation there included an overcast ceiling at 2,300 ft above ground level, visibility 7 statute miles, moderate rain, wind 360° at 4 knots, temperature was 19° C, dew point 19° C, and an altimeter setting of 30.01 inches of mercury. An AIRMET Sierra was in effect at the time of the accident for the route of flight warning of instrument flight rule conditions, precipitation, mist, and mountain obscuration. 

Aircraft and Owner/Operator Information

Aircraft Make: Piper
Registration: N7323K
Model/Series: PA 20-135 Undesignated
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: Day
Observation Facility, Elevation: LUA, 902 ft msl
Observation Time: 1855 EDT
Distance from Accident Site: 9 Nautical Miles
Temperature/Dew Point: 19°C / 19°C
Lowest Cloud Condition:
Wind Speed/Gusts, Direction: 4 knots / , 360°
Lowest Ceiling: Overcast / 2300 ft agl
Visibility:  7 Miles
Altimeter Setting: 30.01 inches Hg
Type of Flight Plan Filed: None
Departure Point: Indian Head, MD (2W5)

Wreckage and Impact Information

Crew Injuries: 1 Fatal
Aircraft Damage: Destroyed
Passenger Injuries: N/A
Aircraft Fire: None
Ground Injuries:N/A 
Aircraft Explosion: None
Total Injuries: 1 Fatal
Latitude, Longitude:  38.640556, -78.307222

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

Nicholas Hellewell, 35, of San Luis Obispo, California, died in a plane crash in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, according to park officials.

Photo posted by the pilot appears to show that the airplane was lacking an attitude indicator. While not legally required for VFR flight, it would definitely be recommended cross country flying that could take you into marginal conditions like the pilot experienced. The aircraft also appears to lack any navigation aid other than an iPad running Foreflight with a Stratux ADS-B receiver.

Other photos posted from an earlier flight on August 23rd show the pilot skirting around some rather marginal weather conditions.

Nicolas Hellewell

The pilot kept a travel log of his journey on his Facebook page:

Wreckage from a fatal plane crash site in Shenandoah National Park.

Nicholas Hellewell, 35, of San Luis Obispo, California, was the pilot who died in a small plane crash this week in a Rappahannock County section of Shenandoah National Park, officials announced Friday.

He was on a cross-country flying trip that started earlier this summer, according to his public Facebook page detailing daily flights with photos.

“For those that know me this crazy adventure should be of no surprise to you,” Hellewell posted June 25. “This summer I will be taking off on a cross country flying trip and trying to land at as many airports and states as possible. I’m sure I will be posting many photos along the way. Since all the family weddings and acro (dance) festivals have been canceled what better way to see all my friends and family than to fly.”

The single-engine, four-seater Piper PA-20-135 he was piloting crashed about 7 p.m. Monday, about a half-mile from Skyline Drive in the Buck Hollow Trail area, according to National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Peter Knudson.

The aircraft left from Maryland Airport in Indian Head, Md., he said. The airport is about 100 miles east of the crash site.

Hikers discovered the plane wreckage in a heavily wooded area about 11 a.m. Wednesday, and reported it to park officials, Knudson said. The pilot did not file a flight plan providing information about his intended destination or flight track, he said.

Hellewell’s plane, however, was outfitted with ADS-B Flight Tracking, Knudson said. The equipment sends out a signal every second with information on location and speed, according to the NTSB spokesman.

The wreck site is secluded and highly fragmented, Knudson said. “We may have to recover the wreckage by helicopter and that may take a little time to do,” he said Friday.

The weather was inclement at the time of the crash, rainy and cloudy, Knudson said. NTSB will release a preliminary report on the crash in about two weeks, but the final investigation could take up to two years.

Remaining closed to maintain a secure crash site and minimize disturbance during the investigation are: Buck Hollow Trail, including parking areas on U.S. Route 211 and Meadow Spring on Skyline Drive at mile 33.5, and the Buck Ridge Trail.

These areas will remain closed until the investigation is complete and the wreckage is removed from the scene, which will likely be early next week, according to a park release.

Nearby Hazel Mountain Trail and Meadow Spring Trail (which leads to the Appalachian Trail and the summit of Mary’s Rock) are not closed, but there will be no access to these trails from the Meadow Spring parking area.

Virginia State Police, Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are assisting at the scene.

Hellewell’s final Facebook post talked about the latest leg of his trip: “Captains log star date 25656.37 made it safely into the DC SFRA (Special Flight Rules Area) without getting intercepted by the Air Force. 25 mile bike ride to downtown to finally get a tour of the monuments capital and White House. Finished off the evening with amazing beer friends and camping at the airport.”

Condolences were shared on social media including on Portland Acro on Facebook: “Nicholas Hellwell died yesterday piloting his plane over Virginia. Acro was such a passion for him. Many of you knew him from the countless festivals he attended in his crazy American flag attire. He pioneered the San Luis Obispo acro community and freely shared his knowledge.”

A family statement posted Thursday by Justin Costa stated: “It is with heavy hearts that we are writing the last Captains Log Star Date ... for Nicolas Hellewell. Nicolas was on an adventure of a lifetime travelling the U.S. in his Piper PA-20 plane. On Tuesday, September 2, he died in a plane crash in Virginia. He made many stops along the way with family and friends. Please treasure the time you spent with him. He will be missed!”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) told the Rappahannock News on Friday that the crash of a small plane just west of Sperryville — its wreckage and deceased pilot not stumbled up by hikers of the Buck Hollow Trail until late Wednesday morning — occurred at 7 p.m. Monday evening, August 31st.

Before taking off on what would be his last-ever flight, the pilot — identified late Friday as 35-year old Nicolas Hellewell from San Luis Obispo, California — posted on his Facebook account:

Hours before his final flight, the 35-year-old pilot from California posted this photo of his airplane just outside Washington, D.C.

“[M]ade it safely into the DC . . . without getting intercepted by the Air Force. 25 mile bike ride to downtown to finally get a tour of the monuments capital and White House. Finished off the evening with amazing beer friends and camping at the airport.”

Hellewell posted dozens of photos of his Washington, D.C. tour, including one of his airplane when it was parked near the airport tarmac, a tent where he slept pitched next to it. There are also numerous pictures of his recent visit to New York City and other stops in the United States from what appears to be a cross-country tour by the pilot.

NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson provided the Rapp News with the following timeline of the small plane’s flight path based on its ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) technology — where an aircraft’s position is determined via satellite navigation, sending out a “ping” every second:

The propeller of the doomed airplane where it came to rest near Buck Hollow Trail.   -National Park Service

• The Piper PA-20 took off from “Maryland Airport” at Indian Head in Charles County, Md., just south of the nation’s capital, “heading westbound” with Hellewell the only occupant onboard.

• The pilot filed “no flight plan,” thus his immediate destination that evening remains unknown.

• Hellewell was flying under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), when weather conditions are supposed to be clear enough to allow the pilot to see where the aircraft is going.

• Weather at the time of the crash was “overcast and rainy.”

• The “very precise” radar track route of the plane ends at approximately 7 p.m. when the Piper went down into a thick canopy of trees within the Rappahannock County portion of Shenandoah National Park, just over Buck Hollow Ridge west of Sperryville.

• The location of the crash is “in a ravine” less than a mile below Skyline Drive (the National Park Service would not allow a reporter for the Rappahannock News access to the crash site).

• The plane upon impact was “highly fragmented.”

• There was “no post-crash fire.”

Knudson said the NTSB will issue a preliminary report on the crash within a few weeks, with detailed information including a likely cause of the crash in 12 to 24 months.

On Wednesday at 11:14 a.m., according to a press release, the Shenandoah National Park Communications Center received a report that the wreckage of a Piper PA-20 plane had been discovered approximately three-quarters of a mile down the Buck Hollow Trail from Skyline Drive.

As of late Friday afternoon the following trails and parking areas remain closed in order to keep the site of the plane crash secure and minimize disturbance while the area is being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration. These areas will remain closed until the investigation is complete and the wreckage is removed from the scene which will likely be early next week.  
The Buck Hollow Trail (including the parking areas on Highway 211 and the Meadow Spring parking area on Skyline Drive at mile 33.5) 

The Buck Ridge Trail  

Although the Hazel Mountain Trail and the Meadow Spring Trail (which leads to the Appalachian Trail and the summit of Mary’s Rock) are not closed, there will be no access to these trails from the Meadow Spring parking area.

Several red trail closure signs posted on September 3rd at the Buck Hollow trailhead near Sperryville. 

A pilot died after a small plane crashed southwest of Sperryville within the Rappahannock County limits of Shenandoah National Park, park officials said Thursday.

The pilot's name has not been released, pending notification of next of kin, and it's not clear when the crash occurred.

Park officials said they received notification Wednesday at 11:14 a.m. that wreckage of of a plane crash had been discovered about three-quarters of a mile down the Buck Hollow Trail from Skyline Drive, just above Sperryville.

“The body of an adult male was found in the wreckage,” the park confirmed in Thursday's news release.

The Buck Hollow Trail, including the parking areas on Highway 211 west of Sperryville, the Meadow Springs parking area on Skyline Drive at mile 33.5, and the Buck Ridge Trail, are all closed until further notice while an investigation takes place and the wreckage is removed from the scene.  

The Virginia State Police, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are assisting with the incident. 

The FAA said the plane was a Piper PA-20-135 Pacer. The National Transportation Safety Board was not traveling to the scene, the agency said.

The pilot was believed to be the only person on the plane.

Shenandoah National Park officials Thursday afternoon declined to grant the Rappahannock News access to the crash site in the Rappahannock County portion of Shenandoah National Park above Sperryville.

“It’s the scene of an investigation and they don't want anyone to enter the area while the investigation is going on,” park spokeswoman Sally Hurlbert explained after the park’s interim superintendent had originally sought to allow a reporter access to the crash site, where the pilot of the Piper PA-20-135 Pacer died.

The park did not say when the crash might have taken place or whether the wreckage was discovered by a hiker or somebody heard the plane go down. It’s also not known if the still unidentified pilot issued a mayday before the plane crashed into a thickly forested area adjacent to the Buck Hollow Trail.

Due to the heavy foliage the crash site was not visible from the Skyline Drive.

Hurlbert had stated earlier today that “the crash investigation is being conducted by the NTSB. You will have to reach out to them to get access to the site.” However, Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, told this newspaper that his agency did not travel to the site to assist in the investigation because of COVID-19 concerns.

According to the park, Virginia State Police and the Federal Aviation Administration are also assisting with the incident.


  1. Rest in peace, Nick! You were on the adventure of a lifetime that tragically ended far too soon. The adventure started here:

  2. FlightAware track shows last contact on Monday August 31st at 18:42 Hikers found him Wednesday. We in Virginia wish to extend to his friends/relatives our sorrow about your loss, we have been to SLO many times :(

  3. In June: "New motor, new prop, new tires, new wings. Time to put her in the air where she belongs."

    Questions asked...
    "How long are you planning for your trip? till I decide to come home and make more money to buy a faster plane"

    "When did you get your pilots license?? finially finished it in February"

    "...Super cool. How long did it take to get the pilot license? 2 years of FAA bullshit and 2 months of actual flying."


    Got his Pilots licence in February 2020. Lots of clues on his Facebook.

  4. Also from Facebook was that on the day of the accident, he planned to land in West Virginia to "check that state off his list" and then fly down to Raleigh to see a friend and hoped to be in the air by 1630 local. He ended up taking off at 1819 almost two hours later than planned and with sunset less than an hour away and unfavorable weather all around there was probably considerable "get-there-itis" to make it to his next airport to check that box. FlightAware shows poor weather both at MRB and between him and Raleigh, so he was probably aiming for an airport other than MRB at the time. LiveATC recordings have him asking Potomac Approach at 2028Z and 2033Z if R-6608 was hot, presumably to fly through it to deviate around weather in the area. In the end, it looks like it was the sadly familiar graveyard spiral in IMC that caused this accident. Not having an attitude indicator was no doubt a contributing factor. A very sad end to what could have been an epic cross country adventure.

  5. This accident has roots in a lack of regard for principles of safe flight. Like the Chris McCandless "Magic bus" adventure, this pilot did not grasp the basic understandings.