PIPER PA-31T1, GRAHAM, TEXAS, Nov. 12, 2001–At 11:24 p.m. CST Piper N6134A was destroyed when it crashed into terrain during an approach to the Graham Municipal Airport (E15). The turboprop twin was registered to Cage Acquisitions, a local company, and was being flown by an instrument-rated private pilot. The pilot and all three passengers were killed in the accident. IMC being flown prevailed at the airport and there was no flight plan on file for the Part 91 business flight, which originated from Wharton Regional Airport (5R5), Texas, at 9:44 p.m.
According to ATC transcripts, the aircraft originally departed from Graham at 11:23 a.m. and flew to Wharton on an IFR flight plan. N6134A then departed Wharton and flew to Odessa, Texas, where the pilot contacted San Angelo (SGT) AFSS at 5:03 p.m. He requested an IFR weather briefing for a return flight from Odessa to Wharton at an estimated departure time of 6 p.m. The pilot was informed of the weather en route, including a trough of low pressure over west Texas that was moving south from the northwest.
At 7:17 p.m. the pilot was still on the ground at Odessa due to late arriving passengers and he again contacted the AFSS and requested an updated weather briefing. He was advised about the conditions en route, including weather at the Brazoria County Airport (LBX), 36 miles southeast of Wharton, which was reporting visibility of five miles in mist and a one-degree temperature/dew point spread. The flight finally departed for Wharton at 7:30 p.m.
At approximately 8:28 p.m. Houston Center requested that the flight verify altitude, and the pilot replied that they were at 18,000 feet, “but we’ve got a problem with our autopilot–it just went off for some reason.” Four minutes later the pilot reported to center that the problem had been corrected and no further anomalies were reported by the pilot or observed by ATC. The flight arrived and departed from Wharton without incident for the final leg to Graham.
En route to Graham, the pilot contacted Houston Center and requested VFR flight following. At 10:20 p.m. the pilot was instructed to contact the Fort Worth Center, and 13 minutes later the pilot requested and was approved to begin a slow descent into E15. Radar data confirms the airplane executed a steady descent and flew a straight-line course toward the airport down to 3,000 feet. Radar returns from N6134A ended as expected below 3,000 feet and eight miles southeast of the Graham Municipal Airport due to radar-coverage limitations.
At 10:59 p.m. the pilot reported to Fort Worth Center that he was two miles from Graham and canceled VFR flight following. No further communications or distress calls were received from the pilot. The pilot did not request or receive updated weather from the Houston or Fort Worth Center controllers during the flight. Data confirms that the pilot’s duty day exceeded 12 hours.
The next day concerned family members notified law enforcement that the airplane had not arrived at Graham Municipal Airport. A search was initiated and more than two days later on November 15 at 3 p.m. a search helicopter located the wreckage 12 miles northeast of the airport.
According to the NTSB, the 66-year-old private pilot held airplane single and multi-engine land ratings and an instrument rating; he held an FAA third-class medical certificate dated Dec. 2, 1999. The only medical limitation was corrective lenses. His total time was listed as 4,849 hours. According to a friend of the pilot, the pilot had previously flown other models of the PA-31 and was employed by Cage Acquisitions to fly the accident airplane.
According to copies of maintenance logbook entries provided by Abilene Aero, between Oct. 26 and Nov. 9, 2001, the airplane underwent maintenance. A Garmin GNS 430 unit was installed, the ADF was replaced, the number-two VOR was repaired, the roll servo for the autopilot was replaced, the Rnav was repaired and the DME was relocated in the cockpit. Additionally, a new right main outboard fuel cell and a right main fuel quantity transmitter were installed. At the time that the maintenance was performed, the airframe had accumulated a total of 3,267 hours.
At 10:41 p.m. the weather observation facility at Mineral Wells, Texas, issued a special weather report advising of clouds at 600 feet scattered, 1,200 feet and 7,000 feet broken, temperature 59 degrees F, dew point 57 degrees F and altimeter 30.20. By 11:19 p.m. the ceiling was 400 feet overcast, wind 150 degrees at nine knots, visibility three miles in mist, temperature 59 degrees F, dew point 57 degrees F and altimeter 30.20. Two witnesses who lived in the vicinity of the accident site reported that between 11 and 11:30 p.m. they saw dense fog.
A friend of the pilot reported that the pilot had been practicing using the airplane’s new Garmin 430 GPS/navcom on a home computer; however, this would have been the pilot’s second flight using the unit. The software, including CD-ROM, that the pilot was using to practice was forwarded to the NTSB; however, there was no information that assisted investigators in determining which approaches or navigation was practiced by the pilot.