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'Foggy as pea soup' | Pilot in plane that dangled from electric tower blames poor visibility for crash

Pilot Pat Merkle claims he never hit power lines and is frustrated firefighters left him and his passenger dangling for hours.

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md. — The pilot who crashed his plane into a high voltage tower Sunday night in Gaithersburg said he considered landing at Frederick as weather conditions worsened, but decided to continue on to Gaithersburg because he did not want to disappoint people who were waiting for him and his passenger.

Pat Merkle, who has flown in and out of Montgomery Airpark scores of times told WUSA9 the fog was like pea soup. He could see the ground, but he couldn't see in front of him.

Experts say in those conditions when he hit the minimum altitude and distance from the air park, he should have gone around, or diverted to another airport.

On Tuesday, workers hacked off the wings of the mangled single-engine plane and carted it off on a flatbed.

Merkle says his and his passenger's survival is a miracle that's restored his faith in God.

"I'm really getting worried. The plane is definitely moving from the wind," passenger Janet Williams, 66, told a 911 call taker as she and Merkle spent about seven hours hanging 100 feet off the ground in a plane dangling from its propellor, which was tangled in a high voltage tower.

Merkle told a 911 operator what he thought happened. 

"I got down a little lower than I should have. I thought I was closer to the airport than I was. We could see the ground. But we couldn't see in front," he said.

Merkle said as he flew over Frederick, he considered landing there, but even as the fog rolled in, he kept going toward his home airport in Gaithersburg because people were waiting for him. It had been a long flight facing headwinds all the way from White Plains, New York.

"The better airport under those weather conditions would have been Frederick. It's a larger airport; they have better instrument approaches," said Greg Feith, a former NTSB investigator.

Feith said pilots, have to be able to see the runway, even on instruments. Instruments "get you to a prescribed point in space where, if you can't see the runway environment, you have to abandon the approach," he said.

Merkle admitted he crashed another small plane in Utah 30 years ago with his wife, his two children, and his nanny on board. They all survived.

Feith said Merkle's recertification to fly will be up to the FAA. But the burden will be on his shoulders, he said, especially after his public statements about what happened. 

"It's up to the pilot to demonstrate that he did exercise good judgment," Feith said.

Pilots, like all of us, he said, need to avoid getting locked on completing the mission we set out on if conditions change.

Merkle said he'd only answer questions about what he said is misinformation that's being passed around. He said the plane never hit the power lines, or he and his passenger would be dead. The wires were visibly damaged at the scene, and Pepco's regional president said the plane's propeller shredded them.

Merkle says the tower and the plane were never electrified. He's frustrated firefighters left the two of them dangling up there for hours.

Montgomery Fire Rescue Chief Scott Goldstein told reporters repeatedly that crews had to make sure the lines were de-energized and that there was no static or lingering electricity before they put up a cherry picker to bring the survivors down.

Merkle said he wants the NTSB to check if his altimeter, which measures altitude, was working properly.

The altimeter has to be set to the correct barometric pressure at your location. Other pilots say the air pressure around Gaithersburg was changing around the time of the crash. So whether the altimeter was set and working correctly is a big question for the NTSB.

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