Weather may have played a role in fatal Louisiana plane crash last month

John Roach
Scene of a plane crash in the parking lot of a post office in Lafayette, Louisiana. Image via Louisiana State Police

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a preliminary report Tuesday on the plane accident in Lafayette, Louisiana, that killed five people and injured four others when it crashed in foggy conditions shortly after takeoff on Dec. 28, 2019.

While the weather was not singled out as a key element of the crash in the report, "Weather is a factor in that spatial disorientation can happen quickly if the pilot is not fully concentrating on his instruments without overly fixating on one instrument," said AccuWeather's Geoff Knauth, a pilot with more than 41 years of flying experience.

The privately-owned Piper PA 31T aircraft took off from Lafayette Regional Airport, Louisiana, and crashed just moments after takeoff. The twin-engine plane had a pilot and five passengers on board; five of the six people died, while one person was hospitalized with burns on 75 percent of his body. One woman on the ground was seriously injured when the plane struck her vehicle and two postal workers suffered minor injuries from flying glass near the crash site.

Investigators have said it will take about a year for the cause of the crash to be determined. But the preliminary report detailed the last minute of the flight, as well as eyewitness accounts.

The visibility at the time of takeoff at the airport was three-quarters of a mile. Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) were in effect, according to the report. The air temperature was in the upper 60s F, and winds were at roughly 7 mph at the time.

witness told Lafayette-based KATC.com that weather may have been a factor. "He was crashing, he was going down," said area resident Terry Lavergne. "I think he got inverted in the fog and couldn't see. Once he came out of the fog, he wasn't high at all. I think he tried to throttle up and by the time he throttled up, he was facing the ground. He hit hard."

"Multiple witnesses observed the airplane appear out of the low cloud bank in a steep, left-bank turn," the report notes. "One witness stated that the airplane rolled wings level just before it struck the trees and transmission lines" and crashed into the road and continued into the USPS parking lot.

AccuWeather's Knauth noted the visibility in his review of the NTSB's report. "Two-hundred-feet vertical visibility is pretty low," he said. "Especially in a plane that fast, you enter the clouds in no time at all - within five seconds after liftoff. You'd better be concentrating on your instruments right away."

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Knauth did not pinpoint blame for the crash in his review of the report. "I want to know if both engines were operating normally," he said. "If one engine failed in IMC, especially low cloud cover, and if the plane was climbing at a very high rate perhaps because the forward speed was too low, the pilot would have had his hands full.

"If the left engine failed and the right engine was still at full power, that would explain why the right turn to 240 degrees was gradual and the eventual left roll happened, especially if airspeed was near or below Vyse [the airspeed for optimal climb on one engine] or especially Vmc [minimum controllable airspeed].

"If you have an emergency in IMC, you might end up fixating, say, on engine instrument indications; meanwhile, all hell would break loose in terms of general situational awareness..." Knauth said. "That's why I'm very interested to learn if there was some kind of in-flight emergency shortly after takeoff and shortly after entering the clouds."

The report notes that "as the airplane descended through 700 feet [mean sea level], a low altitude alert was issued by the air traffic controller to the pilot; the pilot did not respond. No mayday or emergency transmission was recorded from the accident airplane."

There were 393 U.S. civil aviation deaths in 2018, an increase from 347 in 2017, according to the NTSB. Most aviation deaths in 2018 took place during general aviation operations - all civilian flying except scheduled passenger airline service - when 381 were killed, compared to 331 in 2017.

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