NTSB releases preliminary report on Gaithersburg plane crash


A new report sheds light into a crash that caused a small airplane to become entangled into live power lines in Montgomery County, Maryland, and led to serious injuries for two people, including the pilot, who were trapped for hours before they were rescued.

Preliminary ADS-B flight track information. (Courtesy NTSB)

A new report sheds light on a crash that caused a small airplane to become entangled in live power lines in Montgomery County, Maryland, and led to serious injuries for two people, including the pilot, who was trapped for hours before they were rescued.

The National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary reports on the crash of a Mooney M20J that happened on the night of Nov. 27 near Gaithersburg.

The conditions on that night were classified as “dark night instrument meteorological conditions,” the NTSB report said. Instrument meteorological conditions in aviation describe the weather that requires pilots to fly primarily by reference instruments rather than by visual references, such as when flying in cloudy or bad weather.

The pilot, Patrick Merkle, 66, told the 911 dispatcher that it was a visibility issue.

“We were looking for the airport. I descended to the minimum altitude … and apparently I got down a little bit lower than I should have,” Merkle said. “I thought I was closer to the airport than I was … We could see the ground, but we couldn’t see in front.”

An examination of the communication between air traffic control and the pilot found that Merkle was advised to expect one approach at the Montgomery County Airpark, but he preferred a different approach, the preliminary report said.

WTOP’s Dan Ronan, who has a commercial pilot’s license and is a transportation expert, said that the pilot was flying in really difficult and challenging conditions.

The report indicated, Ronan said, that the pilot was having some difficulty with the navigation phase of the flight, about an hour before the crash.

Coupled with that was the deteriorating visibility. Another airplane approaching the airport communicated that visibility was “below minimal and requested a diversion to another airport,” the report said.

The controller gave several corrective actions for Merkle to take. However, the 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 said.

When air traffic control also cleared him for an approach to the airport, the airplane turned 100 degrees to its right.

The controller then instructed Merkle to proceed to the Maryland airport but the airplane was flying too low, the report showed.

“He got too low, at that point, in the approach” and he was “below the minimum altitude for that runway,” Ronan said.

Ronan said the report is a statement of facts and not the type that is drawing conclusions.

It took several hours to rescue Merkle, of D.C., and passenger Janet Williams, 66, of Louisiana, who were trapped 100 feet above ground.

“For the first couple hours, I wasn’t sure that hanging on that tower was going to work, I was very concerned that we might be sliding off the tower and to our deaths, actually,” Merkle told WTOP.

Merkle made the first 911 call from the cellphone while the plane was suspended in the air and call-takers were in constant contact with the occupants during the nearly eight-hour ordeal.

The crash left thousands of people without power.


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