Capital Airlines CFIT in 2004: No Probable Cause
On the 10th of July in 2004, a low-wing, twin-engine aircraft operated by Capital Airlines, Inc crashed into trees and terrain, killing both the pilot and the passenger. It took the NTSB three years to release their final report, which concluded that they were unable to determine a probable cause.
This is one of those stories that gets weirder the more you scratch at the surface.
There were two aviation companies known as Capital Airlines. The original Capital Airlines was, for a short time, one of the biggest domestic carriers in the US (after American, United, TWA and Eastern). In 1961, the airline was acquired by and merged with United Airlines.
A young man started his piloting career at Capital Airlines in 1952 as a copilot on Douglas DC-3 aircraft. He was still flying with the airline as a captain on Vickers Viscount turboprops, when the company merged with United Airlines. Over the course of his 60-year aviation career, he earned ratings for a number of transport category aircraft and was certified as a flight instructor for single engine and multi-engine aircraft. He left United Airlines to become the Vice President of Flight Operations at Overseas National Airways. He retired from this role in 1978 but continued to work at a number of start-up airlines until his second retirement in 1986.
From the 2004 website snapshot of Capital Airlines, About Us:
And so the story continues in 1986 with a retired airline Pilot looking for something to do….
The pilot began to feel nostalgic and purchased the Capital Airlines trademark along with a flight school at Waterbury-Oxford airport in Connecticut. He and his wife secured an air charter certificate which they used to run a “charter and instructional” service out of Waterbury-Oxford, offering both charter flights and flight instruction. His children, now grown, helped to run the “new” Capital Airlines.
From the 2004 website snapshot of Capital Airlines, About Us:
Today Capital is quite a bit smaller in size, but not at heart. The Capital Airlines of today was established in 1987 as a Federal Aviation Regulations Part 135 On-Demand Air Carrier. The assigned certificate number is VRWA687I. We are a family operated air charter operator with an outstanding reputation for providing safe and enjoyable air charter flights. Our flight crewmembers are professionally trained at Flight Safety International and are qualified by the Company Flight Operations Check Airmen.
The pilot renewed his FAA first class medical in May 2004 at age 76, where he listed his flight hours as over 32,000. There comes a point, I suppose, when it is no longer worth counting every hour.
On the 10th of July 2004, the pilot arranged to fly with another man, an entrepreneur who had said he was interested in investing in Capital Airlines. The pilot had previously borrowed $4,000 from the entrepreneur, which he had agreed to pay back in April of that year along with a $1,000 borrowing fee. According to their contract, if the pilot did not pay the full amount back by the April deadline, then Capital Airlines would provide flight services to the entrepreneur’s company and to the entrepreneur until the debt was paid.
The entrepreneur had purchased and invested in a number of different businesses. His biggest success was a fraud identification system to increase airport security, which was manufactured and distributed from his company in New York, reportedly selling very well in the aftermath of the US terrorist attacks in September 2001. He said that he was also a pilot although, as far as anyone knew, he had not flown professionally.
The entrepreneur had flown with the pilot on two previous occasions. The pilot logged one flight as a charter flight (Part 135). He logged the other as General Operations (Part 91); it is common to offer pleasure flights to potential investors, which would be logged in this way. The entrepreneur’s wife later confirmed that the pilot had not paid back any part of the loan and that as a result, Capital Airlines was providing flight services to the entrepreneur in return for a reduction of the loan.
A snapshot of the Capital Airlines website in June 2004, shows only the twin-engine Piper Navajo Chieftain.
That morning, the pilot was taking the entrepreneur to join his wife in Ticonderoga, New York in the Navajo. This was a simple flight, around half an hour, and as the weather was clear, there was no need to file a flight plan. There was no note under which regulation the flight would be logged.
The two men departed Waterford-Oxford for the northbound flight. The pilot diverted slightly to fly over the eastern shore of Lake George, crossing the lake at 1,500 feet in a northwesterly direction.
At the far side of the lake, the aircraft increased altitude to 2,100 feet to cross a rising saddle (a region between two hills or mountains). To their right was Old Fort Mountain, which rose to an elevation of 2,030 feet. The aircraft was tracked by radar and showed no erratic course deviations nor unexpected changes to direction or altitude.
Golfers at a country club saw the twin-engine aircraft circling before it dropped out of sight, followed by a loud explosion at 9am. A search and rescue mission was immediately initiated. A private pilot saw small fires and helped to direct the rescue efforts. “It was not pretty,” he said. “I couldn’t even tell what kind of plane it was.”
The aircraft had impacted the ground at 1,740 feet about half a mile northwest of the summit of Old Fort mountain. The area was heavily forested with new-growth trees reaching about 60 feet and some old-growth trees rising 60-80 feet above them. At 2,100 feet, the twin-engine Navajo should have cleared them easily. Ticonderoga airport was just five nautical miles off of the right wing.
The weather was clear. The pilot knew the route. Witnesses said they saw no sign that the aircraft was in distress. Radar returns confirmed that the Navajo was clear of the high ground and should have cleared the trees by three hundred feet.
Also, the aircraft did not just clip the trees. Investigators said that the crash scene was among the worst they’d ever seen. Search and rescue workers found a 500 foot path of metal pieces and body parts, showing a downward angle through the trees at about 10°. DNA tests were necessary to identify the victims.
The propellers were twisted into S-bends with bent and broken tips, implying that they were both still running on impact. The right engine was swiftly confirmed to be in working order; the left engine suffered too much damage in the impact to be sure. The nose landing gear had been ripped off and the left landing gear was only partially attached to the wing but the right landing gear was still in the wheel well with the gear door closed and undamaged; it did not seem that the pilot had configured the aircraft for an emergency landing.
CFIT accidents (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) commonly occur on approach but usually they are accompanied with a loss of visibility, for example, flying through clouds without an awareness of rising terrain. We recently discussed the crash of Southern Airways flight 932 which follows a common CFIT pattern of impacting terrain during final approach.
But in this case, the crash happened in bright sunshine and before the aircraft had turned ready to begin its descent. There was no reason to believe that the pilot was fatigued or that he would have lost concentration on such a short flight. The violent crash had so significantly damaged both bodies that it was impossible to tell if the men were alive or dead before impact. There was not enough blood to do toxicological testing to confirm whether either man had been drinking or had taken drugs.
The autopsy did have some results. They found that the pilot had severe calcific atherosclerotic coronary disease with 90 percent narrowing of the left anterior descending coronary artery and 75 percent narrowing of the right coronary artery. There was no evidence of a recent heart attack or stroke; however if the pilot had suffered an angina attack then, even though there was no sign of an infarction, the pain could have been debilitating and caused the pilot to lose control. None of the other vital organs were in any fit state to be tested.
With no further information to be gleaned, the cause of death for both men was classified as undetermined.
But the mystery doesn’t end there.
Obviously, it would be odd if both men suffered some sort of medical emergency at the same time and the entrepreneur, who had told the man and other staff at Capital Airline that he was a pilot, could and should have taken control of the flight. At five miles out, they were probably within sight of the airport, after all. However, the investigators found no evidence that the entrepreneur had ever been certified as a pilot. It was a lie.
That discovery paled in comparison to the fact that the FBI was investigating the entrepreneur for fraud. It turned out that the entrepreneur had taken a number of loans from private lenders through an attorney. As collateral, he supplied the attorney with Letters of Credit which appeared to have been issued by his bank.
Ten days before the flight, the loans came due and the attorney attempted to collect the money from the entrepreneur, who was unable to pay. Two days before the flight, the attorney discovered that the Letters of Credit were forged. He confronted the entrepreneur, who admitted that they were worthless. But, he said, he had a pending deal with another bank for $1.85 million and he could use that money to repay a portion of the loans. He gave the attorney a letter from the bank, which said that $1.5 million had been sent to the attorney’s account.
This letter, of course, was also fake. On Friday, the 9th of July, one day before the flight, the attorney contacted the bank and discovered that the person who had signed the letter was not an employee of the bank.
The attorney confronted the entrepreneur who admitted that the letter wasn’t real but, he said, he really did have an agreement with the bank. Only it was for $750,000, not the $1.5 million that he had claimed. He promised that next week, he would use those funds to pay some of what he owed and make arrangements to pay the rest.
On that same Friday, the entrepreneur attempted to reinstate insurance policies worth millions of dollars but was unsuccessful.
On Saturday morning, shortly before the flight, he attempted to obtain a new insurance policy but was turned down. It seems like that was the last phone call he ever made.
The investigators turned over the wreckage to the Ticonderoga Chief of Police. The wreckage recovery personnel reported to the police that they had found a “gun clip” (magazine) on the wreckage site, which they had left in a tree.
But when the Ticonderoga police officers went to the scene to recover the magazine, it wasn’t there.
Some time after this, the magazine reappeared. From the NTSB report:
At a later date, citizens advised the Ticonderoga Police Department that they had recovered the magazine, and that, because it was dirty, they had “cleaned it all up for you.”
Sadly, there is no record of the police response to this.
The magazine had a seven round capacity and was returned with five hollow-point rounds in it. There were no records of the pilot or the passenger owning a firearm of that calibre (.380). Despite their suspicions, the FBI failed to link the magazine to the passenger. The chief of police returned to the crash site repeatedly hoping he might find the weapon but said he never found any further clues.
And that’s where the story ends. The entrepreneur’s business went bankrupt and his widow moved to Florida. Capital Airlines went bankrupt soon after. The pilot’s daughter still maintains that the crash was not an accident. Her father, she said, would never crash into trees.