Investigators of a plane crash that killed six people east of Hawkins more than two years ago were unable to determine what brought down the craft.
In a final report, the National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable causes of this accident to be “a loss of control and subsequent in-flight breakup for reasons that could not be determined based on the available information.”
A 1979 Cessna 421C airplane, N2655B, was destroyed at 1:53 a.m., July 1, 2017, during an in-flight breakup near Catawba in Price County. The plane’s pilot and five passengers were killed.
They were: Pilot Kevin James King, 70, of Bensenville, Ill.; James Francis, 63, of Norco, Calif.; Kyle DeMauro, 21, of Bensenville, Ill.; Thomas DeMauro, 56, of Bensenville, Ill.; Charles Tomlitz, 69, of Addison, Ill.; and George Tomlitz, 45, from Brookfield, Ill.
The DeMauros were father and son, as were the Tomlitzes. King was a next-door-neighbor of the DeMauros.
The twin-engine, fixed-wing, 8-seat airplane was registered to Sky King Flying Service, Inc. of Wilmington, Del., and was being operated by the pilot as a personal flight. An instrument flight rules flight plan was filed for the flight, which originated about 12:25 a.m. from Waukegan National Airport, Waukegan, Ill., and was enroute to Warroad International Memorial Airport (RRT), Warroad, Minn., on the Canadian border.
The flight was en route to Canada for a fishing trip, investigators said.
According to radar data and air traffic control communications information provided by the Federal Aviation Administration, the airplane was flying at about 10,000 feet above sea level when the pilot checked in with Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center at 1:17 a.m.
At 1:48 a.m., the pilot reported lightning off his left wing. The controller advised the pilot the weather appeared to be about 35 to 40 miles away and that the airplane should be well clear of it. The pilot responded to the controller that he had onboard weather radar and stated that it “looks like we’ll clear it nicely.” After the discussion about the weather, there were no further communications from the pilot.
At 1:52 a.m., radar data showed the airplane at 10,400 feet, and at 1:53 a.m., radar data showed the airplane at 9,400 feet in a descending right turn. Radar contact was lost shortly thereafter. There were no distress calls from the pilot. Search and rescue operations were started immediately after radar contact was lost.
A witness who was driving home from work reported he heard engine noise, then did not hear engine noise, then heard engine noise again. He then saw what he thought were the lights of an airplane, and then the lights went out. Another witness, who did not see the airplane, reported she heard a loud sound. Both witnesses were in the vicinity of the accident location about the time the accident occurred.
Price County Airport in Phillips is located about 15 miles east of the accident site.
Winds were mostly calm with overcast skies at 600 feet above ground level near the time of the crash. Regional weather radar did not indicate any convection or thunderstorms near to the airplane’s flightpath. The accident site was located about 25 miles east of convective activity with no coincidental lightning.
The majority of the wreckage was found in densely vegetated woods and wetlands 250 yards west of Wis. 111, about two miles north of U.S. 8. Numerous pieces of the plane could be seen scattered on the highway.
Tree scars and ground impressions indicated the main section of the fuselage impacted the ground in a nose-low attitude. The fuselage was found upright and oriented northeast. Both wings were found separated outboard of their engine housings. The tail assembly was not attached to the fuselage and was located about 1,200 feet from the main wreckage.
“The distribution of the wreckage, which was scattered in an area with about a 1/4-mile radius, was consistent with an in-flight breakup,” the report states.
Of the available components for examination, no pre-impact airframe structural anomalies were found. Examination of the engines and turbochargers did not reveal any pre-impact anomalies. Examination of the propellers showed evidence of rotation at impact and no pre-impact anomalies.
“Given the lack of radar information after the airplane passed through 9,400 feet, it is likely that it entered a rapid descent during which it exceeded its design stress limitations, which resulted in the in-flight breakup,” the report states. “However, based on the available information, the event that precipitated the descent and loss of control could not be determined.”
Autopsy and toxicology testing revealed no evidence of pilot impairment or incapacitation.
Due to the dense vegetation, muddy terrain, and limited horizontal visibility of the accident site, a drone was used to locate parts of the wreckage that could not be found on foot.
The rudder was found in three pieces and its trim tab was missing. Most of the vertical stabilizer was missing, except for the top 1.5 feet. The right side of horizontal stabilizer was found largely intact with its leading edge bent downward about 45 degrees. The underside of the horizontal stabilizer exhibited wrinkling. Only a small portion of the right elevator tip was found, and the right elevator trim tab was missing. The entire left side of the horizontal stabilizer, most of the left elevator, and the left elevator trim tab were missing. The outboard portion of the right rear spar, one of the main structural members of the wing, was found in the vicinity of the tail assembly components with no structure attached.
The left engine was found separated from the airframe and completely submerged in a 9-foot deep crater about 75 feet east of the fuselage. A sump pump was used to reduce the water level in the crater so that the engine could be recovered. The propeller assembly for this engine was not visible and could not be examined at the accident site. A large portion of the engine housing was found in the same crater.
The wreckage was recovered from the accident site for further examination.
Both engines and their respective turbocharger components were transported to Continental Motors, Mobile, Ala., for teardown and analytical inspections. Teardown examinations of both the left and right engines showed heavy impact and water damage. No preimpact anomalies were noted during the examinations of the engines. Teardown examination of the turbochargers exhibited characteristics of normal operation with no discrepancies noted that would have prevented or degraded normal turbocharger operation before the in-flight breakup/impact. Damage to both engines and their respective turbochargers was consistent with high impact forces.
The propeller assemblies were transported to McCauley Propellers, Wichita, Kan., for teardown and analytical inspections. Teardown examinations of both left and right propellers showed damage resulting from the impact sequence. There were no indications of any type of propeller failure or malfunction before the breakup and impact. Both the left and right propellers displayed signatures consistent with rotation at impact. Exact engine power levels were not determined. Both propellers displayed impact signature markings or component positions indicating that the blades were operating, the report states.
The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office, Minneapolis, Minn., performed an autopsy of the pilot. The cause of death was blunt trauma. Toxicology testing performed at the FAA Forensic Sciences Laboratory identified no drugs, ethanol, or carbon monoxide.
The pilot’s logbook was found in the wreckage. His total flight experience was 2,335 hours, with 463 hours of total night experience. He had 11.2 hours logged within the last 60 days before the accident, with 1.7 hours of night time, logged on May 7, 2017. He logged 70.4 hours total flight experience in the accident airplane, with 7.5 hours of night experience. His most recent flight logged before the accident flight was June 16, 2017, in the accident airplane.
The pilot was the owner of the airplane. Review of the available airframe, propeller, and engine logbooks revealed that the airplane’s most recent annual inspection was completed on Sept. 25, 2015. An entry on the annual inspection document stated that, “aircraft checks satisfactory,” and was signed by the pilot on Oct. 10, 2016.