Early Crash Reports Suggest Pilot Error
By ALEXIS TONTI
Pennsylvania residents Michael Untermeyer and Phillip McFillin were released from the Martha's Vineyard Hospital Friday after being treated for minor injures sustained when their single-engine airplane crashed at the edge of the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest the previous evening.
The two men later were interviewed at the Martha's Vineyard Airport by officials from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission, who spent the day Friday conducting an investigation of the accident.
The reason for the crash is still unknown.
"On the surface, no apparent cause has been discovered to date. Nothing immediately revealed itself, no weather problems or fuel or engine problems. Realistically, it will probably be six months before a final report may be offered by the FAA," Vineyard airport manager William Weibrecht said yesterday.
Mr. Untermeyer, 53, of Philadelphia, Pa., was the pilot of the four-seater Mooney 231 aircraft, which crashed while approaching runway 15 at the Vineyard airport last Thursday.
The aircraft was leased through Hortman Aviation Services, a flight school and aircraft rental company located at Northeast Philadelphia Airport.
It is understood that airport officials are speculating the airplane stalled and rolled off to the pilot's side on its final approach before hitting the ground.
Mr. Untermeyer broke one of his legs and Mr. McFillin, 61, also of Philadelphia, sustained injuries to his left knee and multiple leg lacerations, according to emergency officials.
Mr. Weibrecht praised the quick response of emergency personnel Islandwide to the accident.
"This could have been a real tragedy, and it wasn't and we are very thankful for that," he said.
On Friday state and federal accident investigators spent the day at the Vineyard airport combing over the crash site, reviewing airport records and interviewing airport managers and staff. The plane is now being stored at the Vineyard airport and will be transported off-Island shortly.
Mr. Weibrecht yesterday described the circumstances leading up to the crash from the time the plane departed from Northeast Philadelphia Airport around 4 p.m.
The airport manager, who said he is familiar with the type of Mooney aircraft flown by Mr. Untermeyer, described it as "a high-performance, single-engine plane with retractable gear - fairly small but very efficient."
He said that the two men were flying on instrument rules, meaning they were following a specific route - laid out in advance in a flight plan - and remained in contact with air traffic control the entire time.
"It's like flying on a highway, with a prescribed route and knowing exactly where you are going to exit," he said. "There was nothing out of the ordinary throughout the flight."
The weather conditions were generally fair, with variable winds from the south-southeast at 16 knots.
According to the FAA's preliminary report, Mr. Untermeyer radioed the airport shortly before the crash, saying he intended to land from the west-southwest on runway 24. The tower advised Mr. Untermeyer of wind conditions, and offered him runway 15 instead; he agreed and was clear to land. This exchange was apparently the last between tower and pilot before the crash. Concludes the FAA report: "The aircraft was later observed on the deck just short of the airport."
Runway 15, at 3,300 feet, is the shorter of the airport's two runways. Runway 24 is 5,500 feet long.
On its final approach, the plane was coming from the northwest, and set to land southeast into a light wind, said Mr. Weibrecht.
"No one in the control tower saw it go into the ground. They were starting to look for it to come in, going back and forth between [searching for the plane visually] and the monitor. At that point they rang the crash bell. They could see at least a piece of the aircraft from the tower," said Mr. Weibrecht.
The plane crashed around 6:12 p.m.
"They came up about 900 feet short of the runway. There was nothing eventful about the approach, no distress calls, no indication of any problem," he added.
The plane hit the ground at the border of the state forest near an intersection of two fire lanes. Mr. Untermeyer and Mr. McFillin had extricated themselves from the plane by the time the first emergency personnel reached them.
Airport staff, fire and police personnel from across the Island responded to the scene, along with the state police and Tri-Town Ambulance. There was no fire, but firefighters sprayed the wreckage with foam as a preventive measure.
"The response was excellent. The resources that were needed were immediately available - both those provided by the airport and those from the towns. We've done a lot of practicing in the past few years, working on emergency plans, and that paid off," said Mr. Weibrecht.
The incident Thursday impacted other operations at the Vineyard airport only minimally, said Mr. Weibrecht.
Several aircraft that had been scheduled to land after the Mooney aircraft had to circle for awhile; the airport itself closed for almost an hour.