The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a preliminary report concerning the December 29, 2016, crash of a Cessna 525 Citation into Lake Erie. The tragic private plane crash took the lives of six people, including three teenagers. The group was reportedly traveling back to Columbus after watching a Cleveland Cavaliers basketball game during the Christmas break.
No Word on Why Plane Lost Altitude over Lake Erie
According to the NTSB's report, the Cessna had taken off from Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland and was on its way to Ohio State University Airport on December 29. Following tower clearance at around 10:56 pm, the plane took off and was told to maintain a heading of 330 degrees and 2,000 feet altitude following departure. At around 10:57 pm, the plane set a course of 310 degrees and reached an altitude of 2,925 feet. Five seconds after reaching that course, the plane began to descend toward the lake. Around 30 seconds after the plane reached its altitude, it sent off a data point indicating its altitude was only 775 feet.
So far, no indication has been given as to why the plane suddenly lost altitude, nor why it ascended almost 1,000 feet higher than the controller advised. A cockpit voice recorder was recovered and will be analyzed for further crash information. The NTSB has said the recorder did capture the entire flight, so it may offer important insights on what happened that night, in the moments before the plane crashed.
"After takeoff, the controller instructed the pilot to contact departure control; however, no further communications were received from the pilot," the preliminary report notes. "After multiple attempts to contact the pilot were unsuccessful, the controller initiated search and rescue procedures."
The NTSB report states the owner of the plane, identified as John Fleming, who also piloted the plane, brought the plane from Brazil into the United States in October 2016. The most recent maintenance occurred on the plane December 17, 2016. The pilot was only certified to fly the plane on December 8, 2016; he also took a simulator-based training course on December 17, 2016.
Three Victims in Ohio Plane Crash Identified
Only the remains of three victims of the plane crash have been identified so far. They are 45-year-old John Fleming, 15-year-old Jack Fleming (son of John), and 50-year-old Brian Casey, a family friend. Also on board were 46-year-old Sue Fleming (John's wife), 14-year-old Andrew Fleming (their son), and 19-year-old Megan Casey, (Brian's daughter). Their bodies have not been found. On January 17, 2017, officials announced that the search for their bodies had been halted, citing conditions in Lake Erie as limiting the ability to find remains.
"Due to conditions in the water, it is not likely we will be able to recover additional human remains from dives at this point," Burke Lakefront Airport Commissioner Khalid Bahhur said. "A decision like this one is not made lightly, but is a decision that must be made at some point to provide closure to the families and those who worked closely on this operation."
Weather and lake conditions-including 12 to 15-foot waves-also hampered search and recovery efforts in the days following the Lake Erie plane crash. A team of divers and experts in marine recovery were sent in to find the remains. Both the US Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Air Force were part of the recovery operation.
According to at least one report, other agencies could have helped in the search but errors may have prevented that from happening. The City of Cleveland, who is responsible for the search, reportedly called the US Army Corps of Engineers to obtain use of the a tug boat that has thermal imaging capabilities. That phone call was sent to a voicemail box that no one at the Corps had access to. Ultimately, the Corps was called in, but only to tow the plane once it was found.
The investigation into the plane crash is ongoing, with both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the NTSB looking into what happened. The Cessna 525 itself is capable of operating up to an altitude of 45,000 feet and is approved for a single pilot. Up to 10 people can sit in the plane, including the pilot, though six were reportedly onboard at the time of the accident.
In addition to the cockpit voice recorder, a wing, the tail section, and several other "significant pieces of debris" were recovered from Lake Erie.
A pilot who owns a flying club has speculated that inexperience or pilot error may have led to the crash. Larry Rohl told ABC News 5 that given how brief the plane's time in the air was, the pilot may have relied too heavily on autopilot.
"The indicators are definitely pointing toward inexperience in a very high-performance aircraft," Rohl said. Weather may also have been a factor as there was light snow and heavy gusts of wind on the day of the crash. Despite conditions that were not ideal, the pilot had the final say on how safe it was to take off.
Whether the accident was solely caused by pilot error or there were other factors at play in the fatal plane crash will be determined by the FAA and NTSB's ongoing investigations.