Pilatus PC-12 crash after take-off from Milan
On the 3rd of October 2021, a Pilatus PC-12 registration YR-PDV crashed shortly after taking off from Milan Linate Airport.
The Pilatus PC-12 is a single-engine turboprop designed and manufactured by Pilatus Aircraft in Switzerland. It is a popular aircraft for corporate transport (bizprop?) and short regional flights. In this instance, it was a private aircraft part-owned by Dan Petrescu, a Romanian and German national who has been nicknamed “the shadow billionnaire” by Romanian press, who write that the man was worth around three billion euros and that his plane was his passion.
Most media reports state that the billionaire purchased the Pilatus PC-12 in 2015 for four million euros along with a second party, although there seems to be some confusion as to which company the aircraft is registered under. He was the pilot of the aircraft which arrived in Milan from Bucharest a few days earlier, on the 30th of September. On the day of the crash, he reported his destination as Oblia Airport on the Italian island of Sardinia, where he owned a villa. There were seven passengers on board, family and friends of the pilot, including his young grandson. The pilot’s 98-year-old mother was already at the villa, waiting for their arrival.
The fully-laden Pilatus PC-12 departed from runway 36 at Linate airport at 13:04 local time.
The weather was drizzly with low clouds. There’s a reference to the flight being VFR (visual) but it is certainly clear that the aircraft disappeared into the clouds shortly after take off.
After entering the clouds, the aircraft turned for the southbound route to Sardinia but then turned again, heading towards the suburb of San Donato, southwest of the airport.
According to Romanian newspaper Adevarul, the pilot told ATC that he was diverting and asked to return to the airport. This request to return is noticeably lacking in other reports. The newspaper continues to explained an “expert theory” that the engine might have failed as the pilot attempted to turn back, explaining the sudden increase in speed, so I’m not sure we’re dealing with a reliable source.
The aircraft descended about a hundred feet and the speed increased. A few seconds later, the aircraft’s altitude dropped by another 150 feet. Then almost every report agrees that a Linate controller contacted the flight. “Why did you deviate? To avoid turbulence?”
“No,” came the response from the pilot. That was the last transmission. The aircraft entered a steep descent and disappeared from the radar screen. Shortly before impact, the aircraft was estimated at travelling 170 knots (320 km/h).
The PC-12 crashed into the roof of a two-story office building which was empty as the building was undergoing renovations. After the impact, the aircraft caught fire. There seems little evidence of an engine fire, although a number of eyewitnesses were quoted as seeing flames from the descending aircraft.
The following dashcam footage has been released by Colleriere della Sera:
The Italian National Agency for the Safety of Flight (ANSV) is investigating the crash, with the investigative bodies of the three involved countries: Romania (registration of the aircraft), Switzerland (manufacturer of the aircraft, Pilatus) and Canada (manufacture of the engine, Pratt & Whitney Canada). As of today, ANSV has only officially confirmed that they have recovered the data recorder from the wreckage. According to local newspaper Colleriere della Sera the investigation’s first task of the investigation is to understand why the aircraft deviated.
I note that on the aviation forums, pilot incapacitation is being put forward as a likely explanation. I’m wondering, though, if in fact the pilot suffered from spatial disorientation. Specifically, a rapid descent and crash after take off without visual references is extremely typical of somatogravic illusion.
Also known as the “Pitch-Up illusion”, somatogravic illusion was first identified in 1946 from research attempting to explain the high number of aircraft which crashed directly after take off during blackouts, which was originally believed to be caused by an unidentified fault in high-performance aircraft. The repeated fast descent into the ground was originally believed to be a specific issue with high performance aircraft. Research proved that the loss of control in dark conditions after take off is caused by the central nervous system misinterpreting sustained acceleration as pitching up. The data from the otolith organs is very close to the same and we disambiguate primarily through visual information. In the dark or in cloud, we lose the visual information that distinguishes acceleration from pitch-up events. Because somatogravic illusion most often happens shortly after take-off, there is very little chance to recover, thus the illusion is known to be especially fatal.
Having said that, there was no apparent attempt to recover or avoid the building, even though the spatial illusion would have passed the moment the aircraft was free of the cloud.
The Pilatus PC-12 carries a Lightweight Data Recorder (LDR) which carries the flight data parameters and audio recordings from the cockpit area as well as possibly, as an optional extra, video from a camera installed into the cockpit. Once the data is recovered and released, we will no doubt know more.