The pilot of a plane that crashed in waters off North Andros, in January, killing six people, had flown over 120 commercial flights in the three months before the accident without a license to do so, investigators at the Air Accident Investigation Department (AAID) found.
The finding was included in the final crash report of that fatal crash. Investigators concluded that human error played a role in the accident.
The six-seater private Piper Aztec aircraft departed San Andros Airport on January 17 around 8 a.m. and crashed four nautical miles off Mastic Point a short time later, killing the five passengers and pilot on board.
The victims were all residents of Andros en route to New Providence. They were: Darren Clarke, the pilot; Margaret Adderley; Desiree Russell and her 10-year-old daughter, Destinique Wilson; Ricardo Campbell and Valentino Russell.
Authorities were only able to recover some of their remains from the crash site.
“The pilot’s limited qualification, experience and proficiency in operating in weather conditions determined to be less-than-visual meteorological conditions – marginal visual conditions – due to reduced visibility and rain, have been determined to be a contributing factor in this accident,” said the report, which was released yesterday.
Officials from the AAID have said that the pilot was operating a commercial flight in breach of his private pilot license, a practice otherwise known as hacking.
According to information recovered from the pilot’s flight logbook, investigators found that between October 31, 2017 and January 16, 2018, one day before the fatal crash, the pilot documented that he had conducted 129 commercial flights.
One hundred and three of the flights were between Nassau and San Andros, and the remaining flights were from Nassau to Norman’s Cay, Exuma; Chub Cay, Berry Islands; Black Point, Exuma; Fresh Creek and Mangrove Cay, Andros, “all with a return to Nassau from each point flown”.
Although the plane could seat five passengers and a pilot at one time, the investigators found several documented flights with as many as eight passengers being carried at one time.
The report said that the pilot was issued a USA medical certificate by a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-designated physician.
“As the pilot’s most recent medical certificate was issued on November 20, 2013, and as he attained the age of 40 in 2017, as stipulated under U.S. law… his latest medical certificate should have been completed by December 31, 2015 and not as documented in 2013,” the report said.
According to the report, the pilot was issued his license from the FAA on his second attempt at certification in 1999.
“Records further showed that the pilot obtained instrument rating on his second attempt on March 4, 2014,” said the report. “The limitation ‘English Proficient Airplane Multiengine VFR only’ was added to his certificate. This limitation was placed on the certificate as the pilot had not demonstrated proficiency for navigation in a multiengine aircraft.”
According to the report, an examination of the plane’s engine and propeller “did not reveal evidence of any preexisting failures or conditions that would have prevented engine operation”.
The report said that air traffic control (ATC) communicated with the pilot on the day of the crash. ATC said the pilot issued a request for weather conditions.
There were no further communications from the aircraft.
ATC officials then observed the plane appearing to return to the North Andros airport, followed by a series of turns, orbits, unusual climb and descent patterns, before disappearing from radar contact.
“The AAID therefore believes that the pilot may have been circumnavigating the marginal weather and reduced visibility and at some point, lost control of the aircraft, with fatal consequences,” the report said.
“The pilot was not authorized to operate any multi-engine aircraft in weather conditions that required use of instruments for navigation.”
It added, “Based on evidence gathered in the course of the investigation, including other pilots’, who flew with this pilot, accounts, they stated that he was not comfortable flying in weather conditions that were not visual (VFR).”
Based on interviews in the community, the report noted, “As the residents of North Andros are a close-knit community, they provided information to the investigation team on the condition of anonymity.
“They concluded that the pilot was a good pilot and he conducted charter flights frequently from San Andros.
“A student pilot that previously flew with the pilot to build flight time stated, ‘I’ve been flying through overcast conditions with him before, and I had to calm him down and tell him to trust the instruments inside the plane. If I wasn’t with him then, he might have been gone that day instead.’
“Another witness who flew with the pilot previously stated, ‘He was [kind of] scared of flying in clouds.’”
The report concluded that from all indications, the plane made contact with the ocean “straight in, at approximately 180 degrees, nose propeller and engines first” before “cartwheeling several times prior to stopping”.
Divers were able to retrieve 90 percent of the plane, which disintegrated upon impact in the water.
The plane was not equipped with a flight data recorder or a cockpit voice recorder, nor would a plane of its size be required to have this equipment by aviation regulations, the report said.
The Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA) last week announced several regulatory changes aimed at cracking down on air hacking.
The report recommended that the BCAA increase surveillance and oversight of the general aviation sector and that all airmen who are owners or operators of foreign-registered aircraft are also in possession of a Bahamian license.
It also recommended the implementation of policies and procedures to require that all validated license applicants be familiar with The Bahamas’ air laws; that knowledge and skills testing applicable to flying in The Bahamas be required for anyone requesting a Bahamian license, and an audit of all previously issued converted and validated licenses to ensure all applicants are knowledgeable of Bahamian air laws.
Education: College of The Bahamas, English