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Fatal Batesville plane crash likely caused by lack of oil, engine seizure

A preliminary report by the National Transportation Board indicates that the single-engine plane that crashed and claimed the life of its pilot near Batesville on Sept. 14 had just one quart of oil in the engine instead of the normal 12 quarts.

The NTSB report, issued Wednesday, also found that four of the six piston rods were fractured, a condition associated with engine seizure.

“The crankshaft could not be rotated by hand,” said the report, which noted that investigators breaking down the engine of the Piper Saratoga found metal fragments in the oil reservoir.

“Sounds like it seized completely,” said Scott Stone, a pilot commenting in an online aviation forum. “And from the reported state of the propeller, the engine was not spinning when it went down.”

According to the report, one of the two propeller blades remained straight. Blades on propellers that are spinning at time of terrain impact will, by contrast, be bent.

The findings accord with radio transmissions made by the ill-fated pilot, Kevin James Esh, 30, of New Holland, Pennsylvania.

“I’ve got a rough engine here, and I’m going to need an airport,” Esh had radioed an air-traffic controller while he was southwest of Charlottesville on his way home to Pennsylvania. He soon revealed an oil-pressure problem, declared an emergency, and sought a nearby airport.

After first choosing Eagle’s Nest, a general aviation airport near Waynesboro, Esh and the controller concluded that the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport was the better choice. While more distant than Waynesboro, CHO offered longer runways and a control tower. Perhaps most crucially for a craft that had lost power, there was no mountain range rising between the struggling plane and that airport.

Esh crashed about 15 miles from CHO near the intersection of Plank Road and Stillhouse Creek Road and died in the crash, according to investigators. The plane, still full of fuel, burst into flames.

Four days before the crash, the NTSB report indicates, Esh had intended to fly the Piper Saratoga home from a trip to South Carolina. However, the report said, he wound up in Martinsville due to weather and went home to Pennsylvania that evening on a commercial flight.

The report said that Esh’s purpose on the day of the fatal flight was to retrieve his airplane. Online logs show that he left Martinsville’s Blue Ridge Airport shortly after 10 p.m. and travelled for about 50 minutes toward his Pennsylvania home base, Smoketown Airport.

As the plane fell, the report notes that it carved a 100-foot debris path, with tree damage indicating an approximately 45-degree angle of descent.

The report also notes that the sky was clear at the time of the accident. However, the relatively low cruising altitude of 7,500 feet, compounded by the night’s darkness, would have limited Esh’s options when the engine began failing.

The plane crashed just three miles from a private grass airstrip at the Bundoran subdivision, but that facility would have been virtually invisible at night. Unlit country roads would have presented the same problem.

In another recent incident, a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza experienced a loss of engine power and made a forced landing on Highway 280 near Phenix City, Alabama on Sept. 19. No injuries were reported.

Closer to home and two days earlier, a single-engine Cessna Skyhawk also experienced power loss and came down on Interstate 66 near Front Royal with no injuries.

“Engine failure in a single at night, the stuff of nightmares,” mused pilot Gavin Curtis in an online discussion about Esh’s crash.

“The scenario that sells Cirruses,” replied fellow pilot Tony Spatz.

He was referring to a line of small planes equipped with a massive parachute designed, in the event of an unrecoverable emergency, to lower the craft safely to the ground.

The report doesn’t say what led to Esh’s low-oil situation, and an NTSB spokesperson declined to speculate.

“At this point in the investigation, we are in the fact-gathering phase,” spokesperson Peter Knudson wrote in an email.

Knudson said the NTSB will determine both the probable cause of the accident and any contributing factors.

“Those findings will come at the conclusion of a comprehensive investigation,” wrote Knudson, who added that most investigations can take a year or to two to finalize.

The NTSB investigator who oversaw the preliminary investigation of the Batesville-area crash is Robert Gretz. He had the grim task of announcing the investigation into the December 2011 airplane crash that claimed the life of a Charlottesville family shortly after takeoff from Teterboro, New Jersey.

In that crash, pilot Jeff Buckalew, his wife Corrine, and their two children, who were students at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, died along with business colleague Rakesh Chawla.

The investigation into that crash found that the plane encountered weather conditions that loaded the plane’s exterior with ice and interrupted the necessary airflow over the wings.


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