Pilot in fatal crash was warned of low altitude, NTSB says

Pilot in fatal crash was warned of low altitude, NTSB says
NTSB aviation safety investigator Josh Cawthra examines the tail rotor drive shaft of a helicopter that crashed in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of the NTSB on Flickr)

Dr. L. Michael Graver was alerted that he was at low altitude before the private plane he was flying crashed in Woburn, Massachusetts, according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

On Sept. 15, Graver, a resident of Manhasset and a surgeon at Northwell’s Sandra Bass Heart Hospital, and his wife, Jodi Cohen, a real estate agent, were killed in the crash.

The safety board gave this account:

Graver contacted the control tower at Laurence G. Hanscom Field in Bedford and was cleared for landing. While approaching, the controller issued a low altitude alert, which Graver acknowledged. Graver told the controller that he was climbing.

Then, after about 20 seconds, the controller informed Graver that he was drifting north.

“The pilot did not acknowledge the call,” the report says.

The controller again told Graver he was at low altitude and asked if he was still approaching to land, to which Graver responded saying that he was not.

About 20 seconds later controllers lost radar and radio contact.

When the plane crashed, it made a “wreckage path” of about 300 feet, crashed into trees and caught fire. The fire consumed about 20 percent of the plane, according to the report.

The weather included a calm wind and two-mile visibility.

Graver had 1,945 flight hours recorded in his pilot logbook.

The FAA requires pilots to have a “flight review” at least every two years, in which they have at least one hour on the ground and one hour in flight with a trainer who will designate them proficient and safe. Graver’s most recent review was on Jan. 15.

His single-engine airplane, a Columbia LC41 that he purchased new in 2006, was last inspected Dec. 14, 2017.

The NTSB investigates aviation accidents, about 2,000 every year. Preliminary reports are typically released within 10 days of work on the scene, said Keith Holloway, a media relations officer for the NTSB.

Preliminary reports do not state causes of the accident, but rather the facts of the event.

“NTSB investigations are comprehensive and take considerable time to complete,” Holloway wrote in an email. “Typical NTSB investigations, currently can take between 12 and 24 months to complete.”

In 2016, 412 people died in airplane accidents in the U.S., according to the NTSB. Of the fatalities, 386 were in general aviation, meaning nonscheduled flights. None were on airlines.

The discrepancy between accidents among private and career pilots is due to different equipment and experience, said Katie Pribyl, senior vice president of aviation strategy and programs at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

“Training is a really important part of all kinds of flying, and safety is something that is embedded from lesson one in all of flight training, but when it comes to commercial flying you have to remember that those airplanes are very different than training airplanes,” she said. “They have a lot more systems on board than light trainers do.”

There were more than 600,000 registered pilots last year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Of those pilots, 503 were listed in the FAA’s airman database with primary residencies in the Town of North Hempstead.

Earning a private pilot license typically takes about a year, Pribyl said.

The process involves both ground and in-air training with an instructor. The second stage includes cross-country flights, including some solo flights. The final testing to earn a license includes both a written and oral exam with an FAA administrator and an in-plane test.

Pilots must also have a medical exam completed by an FAA-approved aviation examiner.

To fly with passengers, pilots must have proof of landings from at least 90 days prior.

Republic Airport in East Farmingdale, where Graver took off on Sept. 15, is the third-busiest airport in the state, said Ken Neubeck, the president of the airport’s historical society.

Republic hosts private planes, charter flights and flight training. It can even serve as a drama set. The TV series “Madam Secretary” has shot scenes in the terminal.

Private pilots keep their planes at Republic.

“I guess you could say a lot of them are weekend flyers,” Neubeck said.

As of 2015, there were up to 160,000 landings per year at Republic, about a third of which were completed by single-engine airplanes, he said.

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