Plane crash audio reveals urgency of Iron Springs Road emergency landing
Reason for aircraft’s ‘fuel starvation’ under investigation
Less than five minutes before crash landing on Iron Springs Road in Prescott Tuesday evening, May 29, the pilot of a 1986 Piper PA-46 Malibu aircraft called into the air traffic control tower at Prescott Airport.
“We’re 13 (miles) out, I’d like straight into three please,” the aircraft’s pilot said.
“Unable,” the air traffic controller responded. “Three right opposite direction. We currently have five aircraft in the pattern.”
“We need priority; we’re on minimum fuel,” the pilot said.
“OK, roger that. Straight in runway through eight,” the air traffic controller said.
Iron Springs Road Plane Crash
Plane crash on Iron Springs Road in Prescott on Tuesday night, May 29, 2018. (Courier staff photos)
From there, the severity of the situation quickly escalated (the entire audio recording and a transcription of it is available here). The pilot declared an emergency, saying the aircraft was out of fuel and was not going to make the remaining seven or eight miles it would take to reach the airport. The air traffic controller guided the pilot to the nearest major throughway, where he made what was considered by authorities to be an unbelievable landing.
“It was a remarkable landing considering the extreme circumstances, landing at night on a road that has some curves to it,” Robin Sobotta, director of Prescott Airport, said shortly after the incident.
All three occupants of the aircraft survived the crash and were transported to the Yavapai Regional Medical Center in Prescott with only minor injuries. The airplane, on the other hand, didn’t fare too well, having received “substantial damage,” said Doug Whitney, Prescott Airport’s operations and maintenance supervisor.
“The right wing was completely ripped off the airplane; the left wing was pretty severely damaged; and a lot of damage to the fuselage as well,” Whitney said.
Without knowing the exact specifications of the aircraft, it’s difficult to say how much it was worth before the accident, Whitney said. However, 1986 Piper PA-46 Malibu’s listed for sale online go for about $300,000 on average.
“I’d be very hesitant to put a number on a used airplane like that, but it is a higher-end piston single, so it would be on the higher end of the range for that type of airplane,” he said.
None of the passengers were the owner of the airplane, Whitney said. Instead, it’s owned by a limited liability company based in New York.
While Whitney doesn’t know exactly what sort of business relationship the pilot and passengers had with the owner, he said the aircraft appeared to be legally in their possession at the time.
“There isn’t any indication that it was stolen or anything,” he said.
Immediately after the accident, the airplane was towed to Prescott Municipal Airport.
A couple days later, two Arizona-based investigators with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Flight Standards District Office inspected the aircraft on behalf of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Whitney estimates that a final report from the NTSB will be available on its aviation accident database in about four or five months.
Until that report is available, Whitney does not feel it is appropriate to speculate on why the aircraft ran out of fuel.
“When we talk about fuel starvation, it may mean you just forgot to put gas in — however crazy that might be — or it could be some other problem, and that’s exactly what the FAA is looking into,” he said.
Other problems could include obstructions in fuel lines or a bad fuel pump, he said. If it was simply a matter of not refueling the aircraft, the tank would have already been pretty low when it left from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, on its way to its intended destination of Ernest A. Love Field in Prescott.
The flight is only about 277 nautical miles and is estimated to take a little over an hour, according to AirMilesCalculator.com.
If fully fueled and not impaired, a Piper Malibu — even an older model — can travel about five times that distance before needing a refuel.
“It should have been able to reach Prescott from John Wayne Airport with full tanks easily,” Whitney said.
Waiting to be picked up by its owner, the aircraft is still in storage at the Prescott Airport. Whitney expects it will be picked up sometime this week, at which point the owner will pay a storage fee for however many days it’s been held.
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