Preliminary Report: Learjet crashes on approach

 - March 20, 2008, 5:44 AM

LEARJET 35A, GROTON, CONN., AUG. 4, 2003–Learjet N135PT, operated by Air East Management, was destroyed on a positioning flight when it crashed on approach to the Groton/New London Airport (GON) at approximately 6:39 a.m. EDT. Two ATP-rated pilots, the only occupants, were killed. The aircraft was operating in VMC after having canceled its IFR flight plan originating from Republic Airport (FRG) in Farmingdale, N.Y.

A review of ATC communication and radar data revealed that the flight departed FRG about 6:10 a.m. Approximately five miles west of GON the crew advised Providence Approach that they had visual contact with the airport and asked to cancel their IFR clearance. The controller acknowledged the request and terminated the clearance. No further communications were received from the flight crew.

An automated weather observation taken at GON at 6:56 a.m. indicated nine miles visibility, a scattered cloud layer at 4,100 feet, wind from 150 degrees at 10 knots, temperature 73 degrees F, dew point 71 degrees F and an altimeter setting of 30.05.

A witness who has worked at the Groton airport for more than 30 years described the weather just after the accident as “a typical morning, with the winds from the south packing in the clouds over the hills to the north.” The witness added that there were no clouds or fog over the airport or to the south and estimated cloud heights to the north and northeast at 500 to 600 feet agl.

The airplane entered a left downwind for Runway 23 at GON at 1,800 feet and continued its descent. About 2.3 miles northeast of the runway, the airplane made a left turn onto base leg. About 1.5 miles from the runway, and south of the extended runway centerline, the airplane turned left and then back toward the right. When the airplane was about one-eighth of a mile south of the runway threshold, an approximately 60-degree right turn was made back toward the runway.

The airplane crossed the runway at an altitude of 200 feet and began a left turn toward the center of the airport. The turn continued and the airplane reentered a left downwind for runway 23 about 1,100 feet south of it and at an altitude of 300 feet. The last radar target was observed at 6:38 about one-eighth of a mile northeast of the runway.

A witness who was conducting an aircraft preflight inspection heard N135PT as it approached from the east. The witness saw the airplane at a height consistent with the approach minimums for the VOR approach and turn left for the Runway 23 downwind leg. The witness lost visual contact with the airplane as it continued on the downwind leg, due to it “skimming” into or behind clouds. The airplane reappeared from the clouds at an altitude of about 200 feet agl and, as it overshot the extended centerline for the runway, the bank angle increased to about 90 degrees. The airplane then descended out of view. The witness recalled hearing the airplane’s engines increase just before the crash, “like it was a last-chance effort.” The witness described the weather to the north and northeast of Groton as poor visibility with “scuddy” clouds.

The airplane’s initial impact point was at the rooftop of a single-story home about a quarter mile northeast of the approach end of Runway 23. The wreckage path, oriented on a 280-degree heading, continued for about 800 feet through a small line of trees, a second home, a second line of trees, a third home, down an embankment and through a boardwalk before coming to rest in the Poqonock River. Post-impact fires destroyed two of the homes, two cars and five vessels moored on the river.

Land-based wreckage was recovered shortly after the accident, and on August 5 wreckage in the water was recovered. The airplane’s cockpit voice recorder and a flight-data recorder were recovered.