NTSB issues preliminary Climax crash report

NTSB issues preliminary Climax crash report
Lester Hathcox had over 9,000 hours flight experience
Lester Hathcox had over 9,000 hours flight experience
Bryan Rayner, NTSB inspector
Bryan Rayner, NTSB inspector

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board have released the preliminary report on the Decatur County plane crash that killed two experienced pilots November 9, near Climax.

The victims were Gene Odom, an attorney from Brandon, Florida and former WFLA news chopper pilot Lester Hathcox.

The plane, registered to Legal Airways, LLC, in Brandon, Florida, was supposed to arrive in Cairo from Lakeland, Florida but came down in a heavily wooded area on some hunting property.

WALB consulted with flight instructor and Airline Transport Pilot Russell Still, who has decades of flying experience, and trains pilots to fly by sight and by instruments.

Here is his interpretation of what the report reveals about the crash:

The pilot was flying in IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) on an IFR (instrument flight rules) flight plan. In other words, he was in weather conditions of limited visibility. This generally means in the clouds. He couldn't see anything but his instrument panel, and would have been in constant contact with ATC (air traffic control).

LAL is the identifier for the Lakeland airport. 70J is the identifier for the Cairo airport. A Cessna 441 is a twin-engine airplane.

Greenville VOR is a ground based radio transmitter used for IFR navigation. It is located northeast of Tallahassee near Monticello, Florida. When the pilot said he was "loading it", he meant that he was either dialing in the radio frequency numbers into his navigation radio, or he was entering the VOR's unique ID into his onboard GPS unit. This would be so that he could locate the VOR station and fly to it.

From that VOR, the pilot would have turned northwest toward the Cairo airport to fly the instrument approach to Runway 31 (which has a magnetic bearing of roughly 310 degrees).

He was apparently inbound to the airport from the southeast when he reported to ATC that he was in visual conditions. At that point, according to the report,  he canceled his IFR flight plan with the approach controller, probably the Jacksonville TRACON, possibly thinking he would be remain in visual conditions for the remainder of the way to the airport.

The reports states that he apparently began flying erratically (seen by controllers on the radar track). This may indicate that he had reentered non-visual conditions.

Finally, he did report that he was in instrument conditions, and controllers put him back on the instrument approach. Controllers sent him to a "waypoint" on the approach to the airport named "OCAPE."* He would have located that waypoint using his onboard GPS. No further contact at this point was reported.

The smell of fuel and twisted propeller blades mentioned in the NTSB report may indicate that both engines were operating at the time of impact. However, this determination will be made by NTSB experts.

Here is the NTSB report that was issued Friday, November 20, 2015:

NTSB Identification: ERA16FA035
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Monday, November 09, 2015 in Climax, GA
Aircraft: CESSNA 441, registration: N164GP
Injuries: 2 Fatal.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

On November 9, 2015, at 1016 eastern standard time, a Cessna 441, N164GP, was destroyed by collision with trees, terrain and a post-crash fire following a loss of control while maneuvering near Climax, Georgia. The commercial pilot/owner and the commercial pilot-rated passenger were fatally injured. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed, and an instrument flight rules flight plan was filed for the personal flight, which departed Lakeland Linder Regional Airport (LAL), Lakeland, Florida, at 0906, and was destined for the Cairo-Grady County Airport (70J), in Cairo, Georgia. The flight was conducted under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.

The purpose of the flight was to pick up two passengers employed by the pilot/owner's firm, and return to LAL. Preliminary radar and voice information from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) revealed the flight contacted Tallahassee Approach Control at 0948:42 while descending from 5,200 feet msl to 4,000 feet msl. The flight was 62 miles from and flying "direct to" 70J. The pilot informed the controller he was trying to "get to" visual meteorological conditions (VFR) and if he couldn't, he would request the RNAV RWY 31 approach at 70J.

The controller advised the pilot that weather was not available for the destination airport, but that two airports in the vicinity were each reporting IFR conditions. The pilot acknowledged and requested the RNAV RWY 31 approach at 70J, and was then instructed to maintain 3,200 feet. The controller asked if the pilot was able to proceed direct to the Greenville VOR, which was the initial approach fix (IAF) for the RNAV RWY 31 approach, and the pilot responded that he was "loading it."

At 0953:43, while the airplane was at 3,300 feet and 36 miles from 70J, the pilot reported the destination airport in sight, and canceled his IFR flight plan. The controller then issued a frequency change to the UNICOM frequency at 70J, but offered the pilot the option to stay on the approach frequency until the airplane got closer to its destination. Instead, the pilot reported he was "VFR" and switched to UNICOM.

During the 13 minutes that transpired after cancellation of the IFR clearance and the frequency change, the radar track for the accident airplane displayed an erratic sequence of left, right, and overlapping 360-degree turns that moved the airplane away from the destination airport in a westerly direction. The altitudes varied between about 4,000 feet and 900 feet.

At 1006:16, the pilot contacted ATC on the approach control frequency, reported that he had lost visual contact with the airport, and requested the RNAV RWY 13 approach at 70J. The controller then provided a sequence of heading and altitude assignments in order to vector the airplane to the OCAPE waypoint, which was the IAF for the requested approach. The airplane did not maintain its heading and altitude assignments and several corrections were provided to the accident pilot by the controller.

At 1012:31, the pilot was instructed to proceed directly to OCAPE and join the approach. Over the next three minutes, the pilot expressed his inability to identify OCAPE and asked the controller for the correct spelling so he could "load it." At 1015:37, the pilot acknowledged the approach clearance. There were no further transmissions from the pilot.

The radar target then climbed and descended in the vicinity of OCAPE, and at 1016:40, the airplane was in a descending right turn at 2,500 feet and 180 knots groundspeed when radar contact was lost.

The pilot/owner held a commercial pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine land, multiengine land, rotorcraft helicopter, and instrument airplane. His most recent FAA Class 3 medical certificate was issued on May 30, 2013. The pilot reported 1,150 total hours of flight experience on that date.

The pilot-rated passenger held a commercial pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine land, multiengine land, rotorcraft helicopter, and instrument airplane and helicopter. His most recent FAA Class 2 medical certificate was issued on December 4, 2014. The passenger reported 9,500 total hours of flight experience on that date.

According to FAA and maintenance records, the airplane was manufactured in 1980, and was equipped with two Garrett Research TPE331-10, 715-hp turboprop engines. The airplane's most recent Phase II and III inspections were completed April 25, 2014, at 18,422.8 total aircraft hours. While review of the logbooks revealed no subsequent phase inspections, an airframe log entry dated September 22, 2015 reflected the airplane had accrued 18,513.7 total aircraft hours.

The 1035 weather observation at Decatur County Industrial Airpark, 8 miles west of the accident site, included an overcast ceiling at 400 feet and 2 miles visibility in fog. The wind was from 050 degrees at 8 knots. The temperature was 15 degrees C, the dew point was 15 degrees C, and the altimeter setting was 30.04 inches of mercury.

A center weather advisory for IFR conditions was in effect for the area surrounding the destination airport at the time of the accident. Upper air balloon imagery displayed a solid cloud layer over the southeastern United States around the time of the accident.

The wreckage was examined at the accident site on November 10, 2015. There was a strong odor of fuel, and all major components of the airplane were accounted for at the scene. The wreckage path was oriented on a heading of 175 degrees magnetic and was approximately 150 feet in length, and 45 feet wide.
The initial impact point was in a tree approximately 60 feet high, and the airplane impacted several other trees before impacting the ground about 24 feet beyond the first tree strike. Several pieces of angularly-cut wood were found the length of the debris field.

The cockpit, cabin area, empennage, both engines and their respective propeller assemblies were destroyed by impact and post-crash fire and were entangled about 48 feet down the wreckage path. Control continuity was established from the cockpit area to the flight control surfaces.

The propeller blades of each assembly exhibited similar twisting, bending, leading and trailing edge gouging, and chord-wise scratching. The tips of each blade on one propeller system were melted away by fire. One propeller blade tip was fractured and found 215 feet southeast of the main wreckage. The compressor and power turbine sections of both engines were exposed, and the blade tips were all bent opposite the direction of rotation.

Eric M. Weiss
Public Affairs Officer
National Transportation Safety Board
Washington, D.C.

* OCAPE refers to a point in the sky, 2800 feet above the ground, seven miles east of the Cairo Airport. Pilots can use this reference point to know that they are on the correct heading to land at Cairo, coming from the east.

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