Federal investigators have determined that a single-engine delivery plane that crashed into Big Bateau Bay on Oct. 23, 2002, slammed into something 3,000 feet above the Mobile-Tensaw Delta moments earlier -- they're just not sure what it was.
The highly unusual National Transportation Safety Board account points to unidentified red marks on the severely damaged nose and front belly of the plane as evidence that it hit another object in the air. The crash killed 54-year-old pilot Thomas J. Preziose of Mobile minutes after he took off from Downtown Airport.
Agency officials "don't know of any other accident that we have in our files that states 'collision with an unknown object,'" said Keith Holloway, a spokesman for the NTSB, which investigates all domestic air accidents.
"I've never seen a report like that," said Don Godwin, a veteran pilot and chief executive officer of Mid-Atlantic Freight, which owned the plane. "And it's very troubling to have something like this happen and not know what caused it. I know the family's upset, and understandably upset. It's just a great thing that this kind of thing didn't happen to an airliner with a bunch of people on it."
The report, released within the past few days, also notes that malfunctioning radar recording equipment hampered efforts to determine the exact cause of the accident. Moreover, an air traffic controller at Mobile Regional Airport apparently gave incorrect positions to Preziose about the location of a DC-10 in the area, according to the recently released report, officially called a finding of facts.
A Federal Aviation Administration official at Mobile Regional Airport said Tuesday afternoon he wasn't aware of any equipment malfunctions. He deferred further comment to officials who had left for the day. The five-page report states that the FedEx DC-10 doesn't appear to have been involved in the collision; investigators examined it the day after the crash and found it unscathed. That lack of damage, however, deepens the mystery as to what happened to Preziose's Cessna 208B Cargomaster.
Preziose was a veteran pilot for the New York City Police Department and had been an instructor on the Cessna 208 for the Pan Am Flight Academy in Memphis, according to the report. He had worked for several months for Mid-Atlantic Freight, the company contracting with DHL, and had flown the same route numerous times. An autopsy revealed no drugs or alcohol in his system.
The plane -- which had passed a routine FAA inspection a few days earlier, the report states -- disappeared from radar about 15 minutes of taking off from Mobile Downtown Airport at Brookley around 7:30 p.m. Flying under contract for the delivery company DHL Worldwide Express, it was bound for Montgomery bearing 420 pounds of business documents.
About 10 minutes after takeoff, Preziose, using the call sign "Night Ship 282," switched from talking to the control tower at Brookley to the FAA tower at Mobile Regional Airport, a standard procedure, according to Bay Haas, executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority. His agency maintains and staffs the Brookley tower, while the FAA operates the Mobile Regional tower, he said.
A DC-10 ahead:
As Preziose climbed northeast through the overcast sky, relying on instruments to take him to his cruising altitude of 3,000 feet, the Mobile Regional controller alerted him to the presence of the DC-10, which was seven miles straight in front of him, flying at 4,000 feet and inbound for Brookley, according to a transcript of the chatter contained in the report. Preziose acknowledged it.
A minute later, the controller told Preziose the DC-10, now just two miles from the Cessna, had crossed the smaller plane's path and remained at 4,000 feet.
"Roger, I got him above me right now," Preziose replied, apparently confirming he saw the FedEx plane.
But seconds later, the report states, he came back on the air: "I needed to deviate, I needed to deviate, I needed to deviate, I needed --." A commercial frog hunter in an airboat assisting Alabama Marine Police and Coast Guard crews found the wreckage around midnight, resting in shallow water, about 1 miles north of the Mobile Bay Causeway. The wings were shattered, and most of the front of the plane was little more than fragments.
"The impact of that collision disintegrated that airplane before it hit the water out there," Godwin said.
Engine split in half:
The Pratt & Whitney engine block was split in two, the report states. Godwin called that a strong indicator of a violent impact. "That's a big deal. That airplane could fall out of the sky and hit concrete and it's unlikely it would've broken the engine in half like that."
The NTSB report details the agency's attempts to find the source of the red marks on the Cessna. Investigators sent fragments with the markings to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio for testing. The markings were compared to other materials from the plane, including red paint and a red cargo bag. The tests also examined paint from an unmanned aerial vehicle, apparently to determine whether the Cessna had struck a military drone.
Similar tests were performed by the U.S. Aircraft Insurance Group -- which took custody of the wreckage in February -- with similar results, the report states.
"The main result from the investigation is that the material in the red streaks on the skin of the accident airplane was significantly different from the other materials that were examined for comparison," the report states.
Additionally, investigators were unable to identify the source of "a small piece of what appeared to be black anodized aluminum, which was found embedded in the left wing" near the fuselage, the report states. "There's definitely no chance that that particular incident involved one of our drones," said 1st Lt. Sage Park, a spokeswoman for the 53rd Wing, which operates unmanned airplanes out of Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.
Those drones do not fly as far west as the Mobile area, she said. A spokeswoman at Eglin Air Force Base, farther west in the Panhandle, said squadrons there also generally do their testing over the Gulf of Mexico and do not venture into airspace near Mobile. Neither of the Air Force officials nor a spokesman at Naval Air Station Pensacola could immediately confirm whether units based there were conducting aircraft or missile tests when the Cessna crashed, although all said it was unlikely for various reasons.
The Navy spokesman said the Pensacola station has radar that reaches Mobile, although it is generally monitored for activity in the Gulf rather than near Mobile. The accident report does not indicate whether investigators sought radar data from any of the military installations. Based on the limited radar information they could find, investigators concluded the Cessna never crossed paths with the DC-10, contrary to what the air traffic controller told Preziose, the report states. Greg Breedlove, a lawyer with the Mobile firm Cunningham Bounds, said his firm has been retained by Preziose's family and is examining several possibilities, including that the Cessna simply got caught in turbulence caused by the FedEx plane.
Sam Houston, resident agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Mobile, said his agency had no information about the accident, although he said he could not rule out the possibility that a drug smuggling plane might have struck the Cessna. "There is active drug smuggling in Alabama, yes, by air," he said. Godwin, the Mid-Atlantic Freight executive, said it was "very hard to believe that in this United States, with terrorism being what it is, that there's no record of any aircraft or object moving in our space out there. You'd think somebody somewhere has a record of that collision." NTSB investigators should issue their final analysis on the accident within a few months, said Holloway, the spokesman.
By JOE DANBORN
NTSB Aviation Accident Synopses: http://www.ntsb.gov/ntsb/Month.asp
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