Sunday, October 18, 2020

Loss of Control in Flight: Piper PA-32RT-300T, N500MJ; fatal accident occurred August 31, 2018 near Mackinac County Airport (83D), St. Ignace, Michigan

Ronald Steven Dague

Ronald Dague

The National Transportation Safety Board traveled to the scene of this accident.

Additional Participating Entities:
Federal Aviation Administration / Flight Standards District Office; Grand Rapids, Michigan
Lycoming Engines; Williamsport, Pennsylvania
Piper Aircraft; Wichita, Kansas

Aviation Accident Final Report - National Transportation Safety Board:

Investigation Docket - National Transportation Safety Board:

Location: St Ignace, MI
Accident Number: CEN18FA368
Date & Time: 08/31/2018, 2145 EDT
Registration: N500MJ
Aircraft: Piper PA32RT
Aircraft Damage: Destroyed
Defining Event: Loss of control in flight
Injuries: 1 Fatal
Flight Conducted Under: Part 91: General Aviation - Personal


The instrument-rated pilot took off in dark night conditions over a lake that bordered the departure end of the runway. The airport manager witnessed the airplane depart and reported that the takeoff sounded normal. Two witnesses who were facing the lake reported that they observed an aircraft take off from the airport, and fly about 100 to 200 ft above the lake surface. It then banked to the right and disappeared from sight. About 10 to 15 seconds later, the witnesses heard what sounded like a crash into the water or an explosion. There were no distress radio calls from the pilot and there was no radar information for the flight. The airport manager and first responders reported that it was a very dark night and that there was no distinguishable horizon.

Examination of the airframe and engine did not reveal any preimpact anomalies that would have precluded normal operation, and evidence was consistent with a slight right wing down, nose low, high speed impact with the water. A right turn would have been necessary at some point after takeoff to fly towards the destination airport and evidence is consistent that a right turn had been initiated. Although the reason for the impact with the water could not be determined, the overwater departure in dark night conditions would not have provided adequate visual cues to assure a positive rate of climb during the departure and initial turnout on course as a pilot would be vulnerable to illusions if flight instruments were not used to conduct the takeoff and initial climb. 

Probable Cause and Findings

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
The pilot's failure to maintain sufficient altitude after takeoff in dark night conditions which resulted in a collision with the water. 


Altitude - Not attained/maintained (Cause)

Personnel issues
Aircraft control - Pilot (Cause)

Environmental issues
Dark - Effect on operation (Cause)

Factual Information

History of Flight

Initial climb
Loss of visual reference
Loss of control in flight (Defining event) 

On August 31, 2018, about 2145 eastern daylight time, a Piper PA32RT-300T, N500MJ, was destroyed when it was involved in an accident near St Ignace, Michigan. The instrument-rated private pilot was fatally injured. The airplane was operated as a Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 personal flight.

The manager of Mackinac County Airport (83D), St Ignace, Michigan, reported that, about 2000, the pilot fueled his airplane and told the manager that he would be returning to Mackinac Island Airport (MCD) to pick up five passengers. The manager said he was in his office about 2145 when he observed the airplane taxi to runway 7 and the airplane took off. He stated that the airplane sounded normal during takeoff. About 5 minutes later, the manager received a call from 911 dispatch, and the manager confirmed to dispatch that an airplane had just departed 83D.

Two witnesses who were facing a lake bordering the airport reported that they observed a low-flying airplane take off from the airport. They stated that the airplane was flying about 100 to 200 ft above the surface of the water, then the airplane banked to the right and they lost sight of it. About 10 to 15 seconds later, the witnesses heard what sounded like a crash into the water or an explosion. A county deputy sheriff spoke with four other witnesses who were staying at a nearby motel, and they reported similar observations to him.

There were no distress radio calls from the pilot, and there was no radar information available for the flight. 

Pilot Information

Certificate: Private
Age: 64, Male
Airplane Rating(s): Single-engine Land
Seat Occupied: Left
Other Aircraft Rating(s): None
Restraint Used:
Instrument Rating(s): Airplane
Second Pilot Present: No
Instructor Rating(s): None
Toxicology Performed: Yes
Medical Certification: Class 3 With Waivers/Limitations
Last FAA Medical Exam: 07/03/2017
Occupational Pilot: No
Last Flight Review or Equivalent:
Flight Time:  (Estimated) 650 hours (Total, all aircraft), 50 hours (Total, this make and model), 2 hours (Last 24 hours, all aircraft)

Pilot flight logbooks were not available. 

Aircraft and Owner/Operator Information

Aircraft Make: Piper
Registration: N500MJ
Model/Series: PA32RT 300T
Aircraft Category: Airplane
Year of Manufacture: 1978
Amateur Built: No
Airworthiness Certificate: Normal
Serial Number: 32R-7987051
Landing Gear Type: Retractable - Tricycle
Seats: 6
Date/Type of Last Inspection: 08/16/2016, Annual
Certified Max Gross Wt.: 3650 lbs
Time Since Last Inspection:
Engines: 1 Reciprocating
Airframe Total Time: 3276 Hours as of last inspection
Engine Manufacturer: Lycoming
ELT: Installed, not activated
Engine Model/Series: TIO540S1AD
Registered Owner: On file
Rated Power:  300 hp
Operator:On file 
Operating Certificate(s) Held: None 

Meteorological Information and Flight Plan

Conditions at Accident Site: Visual Conditions
Condition of Light: Night/Dark
Observation Facility, Elevation: MCD, 768 ft msl
Distance from Accident Site: 6 Nautical Miles
Observation Time: 2135 EDT
Direction from Accident Site: 180°
Lowest Cloud Condition: Clear
Visibility:  10 Miles
Lowest Ceiling: None
Visibility (RVR):
Wind Speed/Gusts: 8 knots /
Turbulence Type Forecast/Actual: None / None
Wind Direction: 160°
Turbulence Severity Forecast/Actual: N/A / N/A
Altimeter Setting: 30.03 inches Hg
Temperature/Dew Point: 22°C / 13°C
Precipitation and Obscuration:
Departure Point: St Ignace, MI (83D)
Type of Flight Plan Filed: None
Destination: Burlington, WI (BUU)
Type of Clearance: None
Departure Time: 2144 EDT
Type of Airspace:  Class E

The airport manager reported that it was a very dark night and that there was no distinguishable horizon. First responders who were present at the accident site about 15 to 20 minutes after the accident also reported that it was a very dark night and that there was no visible horizon. 

Airport Information

Airport: Mackinac County Airport (83D)
Runway Surface Type: Concrete
Airport Elevation: 623 ft
Runway Surface Condition: Dry
Runway Used: 7
IFR Approach: None
Runway Length/Width: 3801 ft / 75 ft
VFR Approach/Landing: None 

Runway 7 had a published magnetic heading of 074 degrees. The departure end of runway 7 at 83D was located about 820 feet from Lake Huron, and aircraft departing from runway 7 fly over water during the initial climb. The destination airport MCD was located about 4.5 nm away on a magnetic course of about 118 degrees. 

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: 45.902500, -84.706944 (est) 

Divers from the Michigan State Police (MSP) located the airplane wreckage in 44 ft of water, about 1 mile from the departure end of runway 7. MSP recovered the wreckage and transported it to a secure facility at 83D for examination by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Examination of the airframe, engine, and propeller occurred on September 5-6. The airframe was severely damaged, and deformations were consistent with a slightly right-wing-down, nose-low, high-speed impact with the water. Flight control continuity was confirmed from the cockpit to all flight control surfaces. Bending signatures on the propeller blades and impact marks on the pitch change stops were consistent with the propeller rotating at impact. The airframe, engine, and propeller examinations did not show any preimpact anomalies that would have precluded normal operation.

During the wreckage examination, MSP technicians swabbed the wreckage for evidence of bird residue from a possible bird strike. No bird residue was found within the interior or exterior of the wreckage. 

Medical And Pathological Information

An autopsy of the pilot was performed on behalf of the Mackinac County Medical Examiner's Office. The cause of death was listed as multiple blunt force injuries and no significant natural disease was noted.

The Federal Aviation Administration Forensic Sciences Laboratory performed toxicological testing on the pilot's tissue samples. The toxicology tests were negative for drugs. Small amounts of ethanol were detected and its presence was most likely produced post mortem because the body had been submerged in water before recovery 17 days after the accident. 

Additional Information

During the on-scene investigation, investigators observed large geese nesting adjacent to the departure end of runway 7 and walking around during daylight hours. According to the airport manager, the geese are typically bedded down at night. During the on-scene investigation, a search of the area surrounding the departure end of runway 7 did not reveal any deceased bird remnants.

Passengers from the airplane's earlier flight on the day of the accident were interviewed. They did not report any mechanical defects with the airplane and stated that the flight seemed normal.


  1. These T-tail Lances were very notorious for having less than great handling characteristics and one had to be on top of it at all times, specifically at lower air speed and higher angle of attack operations, specifically revolving around takeoff and climb out operations. I flew right seat in one years ago and got some stick and rudder time. It was a mushy feeling aircraft to me coming from 182 and low-tail PA-28 Arrow experience back then, specifically around pitch until cleaned up and over 90kts or so if I remember correctly. There's a reason Piper didn't make the T-tail Lance and Arrow for long.

  2. Very experienced IFR commercial pilot - and even if I had to sleep in the FBO or in the back of the plane, I would not take off from 83D on a dark night. Just not worth it.

  3. "The Lance remained essentially unchanged for two years. In the late 1970s, though, someone at Piper decided that T-tails were a good idea. We believe it unlikely that the responsible parties were aerospace engineers, based on the aerodynamic qualities of the Piper T-tail singles in general. The Lance wasnt the only T-tailed Piper. This was also the period when the PA-38 Tomahawk was rolled out, and the T-tailed Arrow IV debuted. Piper combined the introduction of the T-tail with the addition of a turbocharged variant. These two aircraft, the Lance II (PA-32RT-300) and Turbo Lance II (-300T), were not very well received. Though Piper ballyhooed the supposed advantages of the T-tail (smaller size and weight, reduced pitch changes with trim and flap application), the truth was that when the stabilator was moved up out of the propwash, the airplanes handling suffered. In particular, takeoff runs increased significantly since it took a good deal of speed for the stabilator to become effective, and when it did, the result was a pronounced pitch-up. Some complained of lack of rudder authority. The T-tailed Lances were also sensitive to trim settings. The T-tail was also a pain to preflight, especially in winter, when a ladder is required to remove snow from the stabilator.

    When pilots found out about these traits, sales plummeted. In 1980, two years after the T-tails introduction, Piper saw the light and reverted to the original tail design. At the same time, the company applied the same wing upgrade that had already appeared in the PA-28 series. The Hershey Bar wing was replaced with a semi-tapered planform. Piper also simplified the designation of the entire PA-32 series, renaming the whole lot of them Saratogas. The airplanes that had been Cherokee Sixes were now called Saratoga, while the Lance became the Saratoga SP. As before, there were turbo versions available, designated by a T at the end of the model number."

    The Saratoga SP lives on as the Saratoga II HP and the turbo is now dubb

  4. I was Ron's flight instructor and coworker for several years. He flew out of Brookfield Capitol Airport and Milwaukee Timmerman with most of his flights being at night and over Lake Michigan. I can't even fathom what could have happened that night but Ron was a by the books pilot and had a ton of experience with night flight and IFR conditions. My guess would be water in the fuel with a loss of full power and distracted flying. This was a new plane for Ron and we talked at length about the dangers associated with the T-Tail Lance. He had come from years and years of flying a F model Mooney which was crisp and had great responses. Ron died doing the thing that he loved most in his life and that helps knowing it was a beautiful night along the lake which he loved so much.


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