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NTSB: Plane sped before fatal crash

Posted July 14, 2010

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— Federal investigators looking into a fatal plane crash at a Chapel Hill airport this week believe the pilot attempted to land and then sped up before the aircraft crashed into a tree.

National Transportation Safety Board officials said Wednesday that witnesses reported seeing the plane's tail strike the ground three times as the pilot attempted to land the single-engine Cirrus SR20.

The plane then veered off to the left side of the runway, and that's when the speed of the plane increased, officials said.

The pilot and plane's owner, Thomas Pitts, 65, of Wilmington, Del., was killed. His co-pilot, James Donahue, was in critical condition Wednesday at UNC Hospitals.

The only passenger on the plane, Kyle Henn, 22, was released from the hospital Wednesday morning.

The crash happened around 3 p.m. Monday at Horace Williams Airport, a private airport that sits off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

The university-owned airport has about 15 flights per day, officials said, many of which have to do with university programs.

Chapel Hill neighbors were concerned about airport Chapel Hill neighbors were concerned about airport

Since 1981, 13 people, including Pitts, have died in crashes associated with the airport, Susan Houston, with UNC News Services, said.

Those deaths stem from two crashes at the airport in 1981, in which eight people died, and another in 1989 in which one person died.

A plane taking off from the airport in 1993 crashed at nearby Finley Golf Course, resulting in three deaths, Houston said.

UNC plans to close the airport permanently as part of a plan to expand the campus, Houston said.

No date has been set, however, she said, since the expansion plans are contingent on the university getting the necessary funding.

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  • frosty Jul 15, 2010

    I believe from previous articles, the pilot was very experienced.

    Though it seems Cirrus do have a lot a accidents. But I have read that statistically they are not any worse that other GA aircraft.

    I do find the article interesting in how they went back just far enough to make the fatality rate at the airport as bad as they could. They could not say there had been only 2 in the last twenty years but had to go back to the fluke year of 1981.

    I guess the editors want to close a perfectly good airport too.

  • Robert Larson Jul 15, 2010

    Possibly a pilot-induced oscillation event? Then a go-around attempt but he was so messed up the left-turning tendency got the better of him and he lost directional control.

    Anyone know how many hours the pilot had?

  • gman976 Jul 15, 2010

    Oh, another thing that is pretty common. The news media usually tries to make the accident facts fit an auto accident template which makes the initial report/speculation wrong most of the time.

  • spartanpirate Jul 15, 2010

    Could the pilot have had a blackout or a heart attack. That could be one reason for the crash. It really doesn't matter right now. All 3 families are suffering. I just hope that the co-pilot will be ok.

  • EverythingTicksMeOff Jul 15, 2010

    Bilbo, it's called a "throttle". He wasn't flying a Toyota. :-)

  • pclifton Jul 14, 2010

    @Mr. Sensible:

    You're probably backwards with your cause and effect. Adding power in a prop plane causes a left-turning tendency- and that's the side of the runway he ran off of. I'd say there's a good chance he was already overwhelmed when he made the go-round decision, and he wasn't prepared to put in right rudder to maintain centerline.

  • GulfWarVet Jul 14, 2010

    Getting behind the power curve in any plane can lead to this sort of outcome. Cirrus planes have small chord lines, meaning a sleak airfoil that allows it to fly at faster cruise speeds. With that comes faster approach and landing speeds. IF the pilot gets to low and slow, or the wind changes direction eats up his buffer (changing from head to strong quartering tailwind) the plane just stops flying. Natural reaction is to add power when bleeding airspeed. But once he struck the ground (for the 3rd time) that should have been enough indication that extra go-go juice wasn't gonna make that albatros regain controlled flight.

  • Bilbo Jul 14, 2010

    The attempt to land sounds like a rough ride with tail bouncing, veering to left, then bouncing through the grass. All the bouncing and heaving could have caused the pilot or co-pilot to hit the accelerator inadvertently? I'm sure the acceleration was unintentional, or maybe the pilot was going to try to abort the landing, do a touch-and-go and come back around.

    Just some thoughts.

  • Mr. Sensible Jul 14, 2010

    Why would you speed up before hitting a tree? He may have gone long and been trying for a go around but he made the decision late. Condolences to the family. Too much loss in a short time.

  • drh3102 Jul 14, 2010

    I would like to hear his story concerning what happened. he might not be a pilot but he knows what happened. I know this line of aircraft and they are way to easy to fly to allow this to happen.