Eleven months to the day after pilot Kirby Hodge and two others died when his Piper Aztec went down about five miles off St. Thomas, the National Transportation Safety Board posted a probable cause report on its website indicating the problem was pilot error. The accident happened Oct. 13, 2012, while Hodge was on his regular newspaper delivery run.
One person, Valerie Jackson Thompson, survived the crash. She was pulled out of the water about nine hours after the accident. Hodge’s body was not found, but those of passengers Rachel Hamilton and Darwin Carr were discovered inside the plane. They both drowned. The plane was found Oct. 20, 2012, in about 100 feet of water.
The NTSB said the pilot’s attempted Visual Flight Rules flight into marginal VFR conditions on a dark night over water and his failure to maintain sufficient altitude resulted in the airplane’s controlled flight into water.
“Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s inadequate preflight weather planning,” the NTSB indicated in the report dated Thursday.
Examination of the wreckage revealed damage consistent with a high-speed, shallow-angle impact with water. There was no evidence of pre-impact mechanical anomalies, the NTSB said.
The agency indicated Hodge’s plane departed Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix over water on a dark night. It flew toward Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas at an altitude of about 1,700 feet above the water. Radar data showed that the airplane began a gradual descent on about the same heading before it leveled off at 200 feet above the water. The airplane continued at 200 feet above the water for another 18 seconds before its radar target disappeared about five miles from the destination airport.
According to the NTSB, It was likely Hodge descended the airplane to remain clear of the lowering clouds and went into the water due to the lack of visual cues.
The report said the St. Thomas airport was tower-controlled, but the tower was closed at the time of the accident. The runway is located along the shore with the approach end surrounded by water on three sides. Multiple instrument approach procedures were available for the airport. However, those instrument approaches were not authorized while the tower was closed. A warning printed in the plan view of the approach charts stated, "Caution: Pilots may encounter false illusory indications during night approaches to Runway 10 when using outside visual cues for vertical guidance."
The NTSB indicated weather data and imagery were consistent with Thompson’s account of flying beneath outer rain bands associated with a developing tropical storm southeast of the accident site. There was little to no illumination from the moon. Based on a search of flight service and commercial vendor records, the pilot did not obtain a weather briefing or file a flight plan before the accident flight.
The probable cause report indicates that Thompson told investigators that she had flown with Hodge on this flight many times before. She said that during the en route portion of the accident flight, the pilot flew progressively lower to "get under the weather."
Thompson indicated that she could see lights on the shore near the destination airport, and could see that it was raining. She recalled light turbulence and observed the pilot make his "usual" radio call. She next remembered the airplane "hitting a wall," and the airplane filled with water. When asked if she noticed anything unusual with the flight or if the pilot provided any warning before striking the water, the passenger said no, and indicated that everything was normal.
Thompson said that Hodge broke the window on his side of the airplane, and that she and the pilot got out through it. She did not see any of the other occupants of the airplane after that.
Hodge held an airline transport pilot certificate with multiple type ratings. His most recent FAA first class medical certificate was issued June 1, 2012. He reported 17,000 total hours of flight experience on that date.