Eden Hill Journal

Comments, dreams, stories, and rantings from a middle-aged native of Maine living on a shoestring and a prayer in the woods of Maine. My portion of the family farm is to be known as Eden Hill Farm just because I want to call it that and because that's the closest thing to the truth that I could come up with. If you enjoy what I write, email me or make a comment. If you enjoy Eden Hill, come visit.

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Location: Maine, United States

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Fatal Airplane Crash C-GRRS

In memory of Laura

Late yesterday morning a twin-engine Aerostar AEST crashed at the Greenville airport killing the three occupants. The plane was flying from Ontario to Prince Edward Island on a heading that was taking it over Moosehead Lake. Minutes before the crash the pilot radioed that he had lost power and they were trying to figure out what was going on.
The crash site is just beyond the north end of the north/south runway. I happened on the scene only minutes after the crash. The plane lay just north of Walden Farm Road about a hundred feet from the road. As I drove past all that was visible was the tail section laying on its left side with the right horizontal stabilizer standing straight up. The rest of the airplane had disintegrated on impact and lay flat on the ground hidden only by low bushes. There was no sign of either engine and no sign of the wing or for that matter fuselage. First responders had just arrived on the scene. There was no sign of a fire and I didn't notice any odor from aviation fuel. I did overhear an eye witness describing to authorities that the plane flying low over the airport and heading north seemed to bank steeply left and the nose then dropped and the plane nose dived into the ground.
My farm abuts Walden Farm Road just beyond the scene of the crash. I was on my way up there with my bicycle in the back of my pickup so I did some investigating of my own to see if there was anything unusual around the airport itself but I didn't find anything unusual. Recently the wind sock had been moved to a new location and I have noticed in the past that its location is too close to trees that might cause an erroneous indication of the wind but it was giving an accurate indication yesterday morning just after the crash. The wind was from the west which means that the north/south runway would have meant a cross wind landing on that runway. This is a well-paved 3,000 foot runway but the preferred approach yesterday would have been into the headwind on the 4,000 foot east/west runway, meaning an approach from the east. There is construction going on this week on the main parking ramp but there were, as far as I could tell, no obstructions of either runway.
What strikes me is the irony of this plane flying over hundreds of miles of wilderness, running into engine problems, then reaching a good airport and not being able to successfully land, then stalling and diving in just beyond one of the runways. I can see how it might happen with a fast airplane like this but it appears to me that the pilot's best chance would have been to attempt a downwind landing on an approach from the west. One map I saw of the flight path indicated that the airplane changed course and flew south over Moosehead Lake approached Greenville from the north. The plane must have reversed direction over the airport rather than making a downwind approach. But why?
Weather wise it seemed to me like a near perfect flying day, clear skies, a moderate west wind. Yes it was a warm day and yes there was some humidity, not a lot but probably enough to affect lift. If the plane was indeed on a north heading after what appears might have been an aborted landing attempt, there is a ridge straight north from this runway that would have probably prevented the plane from climbing out on reduced power without turning and a left turn would have been reasonable and expected. With warm humid air and especially if one of the engines had quit such a turn would be tricky. What I am wondering, though, is whether the plane had any power at all. Had both engines quit? Had they run out of fuel?

Update July 31, 2018:
News reports have named the deceased, a gentleman from Ontario and his wife and their 24 year old daughter. From that information I was able to research the aircraft's tail number, C-GRRS. The FlightAware website is currently showing the "Flight Track Log" for this flight. Before the power problem the airplane was cruising east at 23,000 feet doing approximately 300 miles per hour. They started descending approximately 12 minutes before the crash and if I am reading the chart correctly they were down to 1,800 feet flying southeast just off the west end of the east/west 4000 foot runway, 400 feet above the runway elevation, doing 153 mph, 133 knots. He should have made it according to this chart but he was heading east with a tail wind. How he wound up where he did is anyone's guess. All I can think of is that he overshot the runway because of the tail wind, tried to bank around perhaps to reach the lake, and then just ran out of air. Reports say he was a meticulous pilot, late 50's, and had owned this airplane for just over a year and was trained on it by an expert.
If I had to guess, it's my guess he first intended to land from the north but then veered west to line up with the longer east/west runway. He very well may have known it would be a downwind approach but chose not to risk attempting the opposing heading. It's my guess that both engines were out. His airspeed and altitude seem to indicate that he was gliding in for at least the last twelve minutes of the flight eating up some 20,000 feet of altitude. Me personally, and I assure you I'm no pilot, but my personal opinion now is that once the trouble began the pilot did everything right. Every move is understandable. He just ran out of air a couple hundred yards from my farm.
A couple of the news reports indicate that the Aerostar can be challenging at slow speeds. I can believe that. Videos that I've been watching today of various airplanes, some big, some small, show how banking the wings on a slow takeoff seems to lead to a tipping point where the wings then tilt out of control and the airplane then noses straight down.

So the real question still remains. Why did the engines quit?

Update August 1, 2018:
For some reason I can't let this rest until I have some kind of a better understanding. There are some serious ironies here. For instance, according to the figures in the table in the FlightAware website that I linked to above, the situation was normal at 10:30:05, altitude 23,000 feet, heading 81 degrees, speed 259 knots, everything normal. At 10:31:50 the plane had slowed to 181 knots but was still heading 80 degrees and had lost only 200 feet of altitude. The plane was just west of Moosehead Lake flying just north of Rockwood which is halfway up Moosehead. At that very moment, had the pilot looked down from his side window, two miles to the north was the private Socatean Bay airport with, if I can trust Google Earth, a 3,600 foot paved runway. Angels couldn't have done a better job of putting that airplane in the perfect location for an emergency landing. However, it's not likely the pilot was looking for an airport at that point. He had work to do right inside his airplane. Not only that but the runway seems to be listed as a 2,100 foot runway. I wonder if the flight charts reflect the additions to both ends of that runway. Still, that runway was two miles to his north and four miles down from his altitude, a piece of cake had he realized it was there.
Instead, the pilot made a steep descent probably to reach an altitude where the air wasn't so thin. His airplane was pressurized until the engines quit so he needed to get down to thicker air. He made a gradual right turn down the east side of Moosehead Lake and by 10:41:57 he was over Sandy Bay, had slowed to 107 knots and was heading west at 254 degrees, facing towards Big Moose Mountain setting himself up for a left turn that would take him directly in to runway 14 with the wind at his back. He was at 4,200 feet, approximately 3 miles from the airport and 2,800 feet above the runway elevation. At this point he still had everything going for him except for one thing. He needed to land on the opposite end of that runway but he didn't attempt is. Landing with the wind probably added fifteen or twenty miles per hour to his approach ground speed as opposed to landing against the wind on runway 32.
It's said that the Aerostar has a 13:1 glide ratio. Flying straight, that means his 2,800 feet of altitude above the runway gave him 36,400 feet of glide, 6.9 miles of glide from 3 miles away. But it looks like he didn't want to take the risk. He had an easy approach from the west. Why take the risk.
I've been doing a little research on this airplane. The Aerostar uses hydraulics to raise the landing gear but it can lower its gear without hydraulic pressure. Hydraulics are driven by a pump operating from the right engine. The flaps also use hydraulic pressure from this same pump on the right engine. An available accessory for this airplane is an electric auxiliary hydraulic pump located in the tail. If the airplane doesn't have this accessory pump and needs flaps, the pilot needs to unfeather the propeller on the right engine and wait 8 seconds for pressure to build, or so it seems by what I have been reading. Dropping the landing gear, unfeathering the propellers to rotate the engines, and deploying flaps all slow the airplane down, but with both engines out, the last thing a pilot would be comfortable with doing is slowing the airplane down at low altitude and then not having enough altitude to clear the end of the runway.
A lot to consider if you ask me. A lot of brain work and not exactly the kind of thing you get good at with practice. It's too dangerous to practice. Danger is what comes to mind for me, lots and lots of danger. The deck of cards is stacked against you at this point. The pilot had a lot to think about during that last minute of his life. I do think, though, that he could have successfully and easily landed flying into the wind on runway 32 had he committed himself early to making the attempt. Strangely, it just dawned on me what he was most likely doing the instant before the crash. Up until just now I was thinking he must have been trying to bank back around to the west to attempt a water landing downtown but I don't think so. He stalled the airplane just north of the end of runway 21 attempting a steep left turn. Could he have been attempting to land on that runway after realizing he was too high and fast for his attempt on runway 14? It would mean turning 290 degrees in all with no power and marginal airspeed considering the airplane's performance at low speed but it's either that or ditch it in the nearest lake (like Wilson Pond maybe?) or crash into the trees. But yeah that makes sense if he tried to maneuver back around and land on runway 21. His stall was just to the east just over the north end of runway 21.
They say the Aerostar wing uses the same airfoil profile as the old Lear Jet, not exactly a good wing for tight turns at low speeds. It's relatively easy to stall at low speeds and rather hard to recover once it has stalled. I read somewhere that the stall recovery uses 500 feet of altitude for this airplane and he had nowhere near that much room.

Update August 2, 2018:
I drove by the crash scene today. The wreckage is gone and the road has been reopened. There was an official at the site so I stopped and asked some questions. He said firefighters at the scene Monday had said there was a pool of gasoline where the plane impacted the ground. He also said it had been observed that after the crash one of the propellers was intact but the other had disintegrated, like it wasn't even there, but he wasn't aware of which engine the good propeller had been on. I also spoke with an eyewitness to the crash but he was unable to say whether either of the propellers was rotating. He wasn't sure about the landing gear but his vantage point was of the top side of the airplane as it banked left. He said he had heard that the landing gear was down. So nothing conclusive there but a few more observations.

Update August 3, 2018
I can't explain it but there's something about this crash that has me in its grip and doesn't want to let me go. Maybe it's because the airplane was right over my little farm when the pilot lost control or maybe it's because I was there at the crash site only minutes after the crash. Maybe it has to do with angels bugging me to figure this out and write about it. Maybe it's just my imagination. Maybe it's from a lack of sleep, I don't know.
In any case I have spent several hours today in Google Earth plotting the longitude and latitude coordinates in the above linked Flight Track Log table (which probably will only be available for 3 months) and then using Google Earth's 3-D perspective to try to get a picture from the pilot's perspective at the various way points. That does work but it baffles the mind to understand the pilot's chosen path. The thing is, as he approached Greenville he still had all kinds of altitude. The most daunting view is the last waypoint before he chose to abort his landing approach. He was four tenths of a mile from the west end of runway 14 about 500 feet to the right of the runway's centerline but still, heading right for it, lined up just the way he would want to be. Yes he was going like a bat out of hell still, 133 knots with maybe a 10 or 15 knot wind at his tail adding to his ground speed so let's say 145 knots ground speed. That's just under 170 miles per hour. He still had 400 feet of altitude that he needed to get rid of but the runway is 4,000 feet long and presumably the airplane only needed half of that runway if he could get his speed down. Lowering his landing gear is one way to slow down. Taking his propellers out of their feathered glide position and windmilling, forcing the engines to turn over, would create lots of drag, like downshifting in a car going downhill and using the engine to slow you down. Doing that would also pump up the hydraulics and enable him to use flaps which would add drag and tend to both slow him down and add to maneuverability although that increases the wings' lift. But still, drag slows an airplane down. The more drag the better when you're approaching at this kind of speed. He didn't need engine power. He needed maximum drag. And it just looks on the computer screen like he would have made it OK had he been doing all that. But something convinced him that he couldn't make it, that it just couldn't be done, that he would overshoot and hit that ledge at the other end of the runway. Something in his mind told him to try something else.
Yesterday I was thinking that after he aborted his first approach he may have attempted a 270 degree turn to make an attempt at the other runway, runway 21, but I really don't think that's right. The fact that one of his propellers was relatively intact while the other had disintegrated suggests to me that he was using his right engine to pump up hydraulic pressure so he could raise his landing gear. Maybe not. Maybe he was just using it to keep his flaps down so he could maneuver a tight turn but maybe he had decided to raise his gear to streamline the airplane back into glide mode and make an attempt to reach Moosehead Lake. Maybe he had seen some boats on Moosehead and was thinking he could ditch close to a boat giving him and his passengers a chance to be rescued. Wilson Pond, the easier water landing option, doesn't have many boats out on the water usually and no doubt he could see that on his approach to the airport. So maybe that was what he had in mind. It was, once he aborted his approach, the only remaining sane option. But ditching in Moosehead meant he had to reverse direction, which he was clearly attempting to do. The last recorded waypoint had him right over the flight line heading east towards Wilson Pond but the wreckage, only 1,100 feet from this last recorded waypoint, was almost directly north from there seemingly heading west and at least one eye witness saw him making that tight turn.
It makes me wonder what might be recorded by air traffic control. There is no control tower in Greenville but he may have stayed in touch with ATC in Bangor.
Still, it seems like an enormous irony that he didn't successfully land that airplane after doing such a good job of reaching an airport from way out in the boonies north of Rockwood. I count four things that he could have done differently that may have saved their lives but I wasn't there in the plane. I didn't see what he saw. I can almost see it now with Google Earth using that data table of recorded waypoints but I wasn't there to witness it. I won't be the judge. Still, it sure does seem to me like this pissed off some angels and I got caught in the fury.

Update August 21, 2018
I came across some more information today about this airplane crash. This site, Kathryn's Report, has pictures that I had not seen previously that show the extent of the damage to the airplane. It also has a link to a preliminary NTSB report that I had not seen previously. The report gives additional information from eyewitnesses, ATC, and first responders. It also states that the airplane had been fueled up three days prior to this flight with 117 gallons of aviation fuel topping off all three of the airplane's main fuel tanks, then kept in a hanger until the day of the flight. It states that first responders reported cleaning up about twenty gallons of fuel at the crash site. Also the report states that the pilot notified ATC that "he had the airport in sight and intended to make a left downwind entry for runway 14." According to this report it was observed after the pilot missed that approach that the landing gear was up and both propellers were turning, not feathered. A pilot who witnessed the crash said he didn't think the pilot was attempting to land on runway 21 because he was too close to the runway to make that approach which I interpret to mean - from my own familiarity with the airport and from piecing together the clues I have seen - that the pilot approached from the west (or southwest since he was south of runway 14's centerline), aborted that approach and overflew the flight line area on an easterly heading, turned towards the north parallel with runway 21 but in the opposite direction, and was just too close in to the runway to actually reverse his direction and attempt a landing on runway 21. I still believe that after he aborted his landing approach for runway 14, with props windmilling he raised his landing gear and attempted to turn around and head west down to Moosehead Lake where he could ditch in the water. Everything just went haywire in the turn with all the drag from his props, slowing him to the point where he lost control, stalled his wings, and dove into the ground.
This preliminary report clears up a few mysteries but it leaves a lot of mysteries unsolved like there should have been somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred gallons of aviation gas in the fuel tanks. Where did they go? Plus the big one, why did the pilot abort the landing approach when it was basically the only chance he had to land? Did his engines come to life when he windmilled them on that approach? Did he think he could go around for another attempt but the engines just weren't producing enough power? Or had he run out of fuel and had been windmilling the props to enable hydraulics for raising the landing gear and operating the flaps?
The report states that the wind was from the northwest at 8 knots. Could there have been an unanticipated updraft of air as the hill forced it from lake level, about 1,100 feet, to airport level, about 1,400 feet and that unanticipated lift surprised and spooked the pilot making him believe he couldn't get the plane down to airport altitude and still have enough runway left for stopping? I do know one thing for sure. If he saw that slate ledge jutting up on the far end of runway 14, that sure could have sent a chill up his spine.

Update August 22, 2018
This morning I came across an informative article on centralmaine.com that gives information I had not come across before including a four and a half minute audio clip of ATC communications prior to and just following this crash.


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