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NTSB report released on Gaithersburg plane crash

A preliminary report found that pilot Pat Merkle made a series of wrong turns while approaching the runway.

GAITHERSBURG, Md. — The National Transportation Safety Board has released its preliminary report on its investigation into a small plane crash that sent two people to the hospital. The plane crashed into a high voltage electrical tower near the Montgomery County Airpark (GAI) on Nov. 27. Two people were pulled from the wreckage, dangling 100 feet in the air, in a daring rescue effort by first responders. The crash knocked out power for thousands of residents in Gaithersburg. 

According to the NTSB's report, the pilot, 66-year-old Pat Merkle, was flying his plane in "dark night instrument meteorological conditions" with 1.25 miles of visibility in fog.

The report discusses communication between the pilot and air traffic control at GAI.  Air traffic control advised the pilot to make a specific approach to the airport given the weather conditions, but the report says Merkle preferred a different approach procedure. 

According to the report, air traffic control cleared Merkle to make his preferred approach, but the pilot made a series of wrong turns in the air on a approach. 

"[T]he pilot made a series of left and right turns, near course reversals, or continued established headings as the controller repeatedly requested that the pilot turn to a different heading," the report reads. 

The report details further confusion in the air, when another airplane approaching GAI requested diversion to another airport.

Credit: NTSB
NTSB flight track information

The air traffic controller cleared Merkle for an approach to runway. According to the preliminary report, the minimum altitude for the approach was about 3,000 feet above the ground. Merkle began his approach approach at about 2,775 feet, and continued to descend. 

"About 1.25 miles from the runway and left of the runway centerline, the airplane impacted and became suspended in a power line tower," the report says.

Merkle and his passenger were seriously injured in the crash. 

The report also references the 911 call released following the crash.

“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,” Merkle told a dispatcher.

The report references reporting from WUSA9, in which Merkle described the fog at the time of the accident as "pea soup." Merkle told WUSA9 that he had questions about whether the plane's altimeter was working properly at the time of the crash.

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.

"According to the test report, the altimeter was 'well within the test allowable error at all ranges,'" the report says. 

The NTSB report is preliminary. It typically takes about a year or two years for an investigation such as this one to be completed.

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