Local News

Witness: Plane 'out of control' before Chapel Hill crash

Posted July 19, 2010

— A witness said a single-engine plane that crashed last week in Chapel Hill was "out of control," federal investigators reported in their preliminary findings, which were released Monday.

The single-engine Cirrus SR20 crashed on July 12 as it tried to land at Horace Williams Airport. The pilot and plane's owner, Thomas Pitts, 65, of Wilmington, Del., was killed.

Passenger James Donahue was injured in the crash and was listed in serious condition Monday at UNC Hospitals. Passenger Kyle Henn suffered minor injuries.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said they found no anomalies with the plane's frame, flight controls or engine assembly.

Henn told NTSB investigators that the plane "hopped" three times before landing about midway along the runway. Pitts applied more power, he said, but the plane went off the left side of the runway and couldn't get airborne again before hitting some trees.

Two friends of Henn were waiting at the airport for the plane, according to the NTSB report, and one reported the plane appeared to be coming in faster than normal for a landing.

"The initial landing was pretty hard, and there was a small bounce and all three wheels left the ground," the unidentified witness told NTSB investigators. "When the plane came down the second time, the front wheel hit first, and there was a bigger bounce. The plane bounced a third and fourth time, each time the front wheel hitting first and each bounce getting more pronounced. At this point, it seemed like the airplane was out of control."

The witness reporting hearing the engine rev loudly and thought the pilot was trying to lift off again for another pass at the airport.

"When the plane came into view again, it was sliding or gliding across the grass on the left side of the runway," the witness said. "As it was sliding, it rotated almost 180 degrees to the left, so it was facing back towards the direction it had landed from. The right side of the plane struck the fence and tree. Almost immediately following the impact, the rocket-assisted parachute fired out in the direction the plane was originally traveling.”

Other witnesses at the airport reported hearing the plane's engine running at "full power." One of the witnesses estimated that the plane was traveling at 60 to 70 mph when it slid off the runway, and a second said the nose of the plane was pointed up at 45 degrees shortly before the crash, according to the NTSB report.

Investigators said they found evidence showing the plane's tail hit the grass three times after the aircraft left the runway and before it hit the trees.

Pitts was flying Henn to the Triangle so he could be with his family following the death of his older brother in a July 11 terrorist bombing in Uganda.

The NTSB will release an extensive factual report on the crash in nine to 12 months, and investigators will release details on the cause of the crash by the end of 2011.

Horace Williams Airport is owned by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. The airport has about 15 flights per day, officials said, many of which have to do with university programs.

UNC plans to close the airport permanently as part of a plan to expand the campus, but no date has been set for that move.


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  • Dick Jul 20, 2010

    Sounds like a classic case of a 'Porpoise'. It happens when an airplane comes down too fast and/or too steep, bounces that 1st time, and it only gets worse. I was always taught 'don't let it land, don't let it land' (ie. bleed airspeed by continuously applying rearward on the yoke until the plane stalls inches above the field). About the only way to get out of that situation is to firewall the throttle and get away from the ground. It sounds like this plane encountered trees before the pilot could execute the go-around. Sheer terror inside during those last seconds.

  • jet2rdu Jul 19, 2010

    ILM is the airport code for Wilmington International Airport in Wilmington NC. ILM's international traffic comes in the form of corporate and personal aircraft and chartered flights.

    International aircraft can clear U.S. Customs at ILM. This allows ILM to be designated an "International Airport".

  • Ready2Taxi Jul 19, 2010

    Nascarguy - yep, it's a good description of porpoising. A tragedy for all the families involved.

  • nascarguy Jul 19, 2010

    nose wheel touching down first is pretty telling in my opinion. This combined with speed is not a good combination.

  • MyNameIsMud Jul 19, 2010

    "A witness said a single-engine plane that crashed last week in Chapel Hill was "out of control.. .Thanks, Captain Obvious!"

    Witness accounts (and media descriptions) in aviation accidents are often atrocious and inaccurate. There are many variables in flying and any one of them can go wrong and cause an accident.

  • DontAnnoyMe Jul 19, 2010

    @HappyGirl08 - chill! Surely that will happen. The copilot is in critical condition, likely unable to talk. Kyle should be interviewed after family matters settle down a bit.

  • DontAnnoyMe Jul 19, 2010

    Yeah, I see it now. Wilmington NC doesn't have an international airport, so the report is incorrect. As you said, it should be ILG in Delaware, not ILM here. This is substantiated by an earlier story which stated that "The plane was registered to Pitts, who lived in Wilmington, Del."

  • mdteel Jul 19, 2010

    @ Don't Annoy Me I sorry you must not have read the exploring fuel issues "The airplane was last refueled at Wilmington International Airport (ILM), Wilmington, Delaware, on July 11, 2010, with 25.9 gallons of 100 low lead fuel." Per NTSB. Just help me figure this out refueled in Wilmington NC(ILM) or Wilmington Delaware (ILG).

  • DontAnnoyMe Jul 19, 2010

    @mdteel - the report is correct; Horace Williams is IGX. ILG is Wilmington, Delaware. See http://aviationweather.gov/adds/metars/stations.txt

  • whatconstitution Jul 19, 2010

    Kyle was flying back after his brother Nate was killed serving Jesus in Uganda with Invisible Children. http://blog.invisiblechildren.com/2010/07/in-loving-memory-of-nate-oteka-henn/