Two Rescued From Aircraft Left Dangling From Powerlines

The Mooney M20J collided with an electrical transmission tower as it was on approach to Montgomery County Airpark.

Two people were rescued from a small plane seven hours after they were left dangling from a power transmission tower near an airport in Gaithersburg, Maryland, on Sunday night. 

The aircraft—a Mooney M20J—was on approach to Montgomery County Airpark (KGAI) around 5:30 p.m. when, according to the Montgomery County Fire Department, the aircraft collided with the transmission tower north of the airport.

At the time, night IFR conditions prevailed, as sunset was at 4:47 p.m. and there were reports of low ceilings and visibility because of rain and mist in the vicinity.

The aircraft remained dangling 100 feet above the ground, tail down, for approximately seven hours while several agencies—including the Montgomery County Fire Department, Maryland State Police, and representatives from Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO)—worked together to rescue the pilot and passenger.

According to Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein, rescuers were able to establish cell phone contact with the pilot and passenger, and they kept in touch with them during the ordeal. Both the pilot and passenger sustained injuries that a fire department official described as “serious, but not life threatening,” and both were hypothermic, as the temperature was in the 40s.

In a press briefing Sunday night, Fire Chief Scott Goldstein stated that rescuers had to climb the tower and secure the aircraft—just as they would a car if it was dangling over a cliff—and then had to make sure there was no static electricity or residual power in the lines before a cherry picker could be raised to rescue the pilot and passenger.

The pilot has been identified as Patrick Merkle, 65, of Washington, D.C., the passenger as 66-year-old Jan Williams, of Louisiana. They were transported to a local hospital. The Mooney was then lowered to the ground.

PEPCO noted the crash knocked out power to approximately 85,000 customers. Classes at Montgomery County Schools were canceled this morning as a result. According to the FAA, the aircraft, N201RF is registered to MFC Corp located in Washington, D.C.

The Flight

FlightAware.com, a flight tracking site, shows the Mooney had made several flights to and from KGAI in the past week. The last recorded flight shows the Mooney departing Westchester County Airport (KHPN) in White Plains, New York, on November 28 at 3:01 p.m. with the intended landing at KGAI at an ETA of 5:39 p.m. 

A review of the VFR sectional and Google Earth shows the transmission tower is located approximately 4 miles north of the airport. The power lines run east to west. According to the VFR sectional for the area, the power transmission towers are at an altitude of 564 msl or 225 agl.

Pilots based at KGAI speculated that the pilot may have been attempting to fly the RNAV 14 approach into the airport.

About the Airport

The runway at KGAI is orientated 14/32 and measures 4,202 ft x 7ft feet with REILs and a 4-box VASI. The airport elevation is 539 feet msl.

According to the published NOS procedure, the RNAV (GPS) 14, features both the so-called “Trouble T” and “Alternate Minimums A”, which let pilots know there are some unusual and perhaps challenging aspects to the approach. The fine print on the RNAV 14 at KGAI reads “When local altimeter setting is not received, use Washington Dulles Intl altimeter setting and increase all DA/MDAs by 80 and visibility requirements by 1/4 mile.”

DA/MDA stands for decision altitude/minimum descent altitude, which are defined as the specific altitude or height above ground at which a missed approach must be initiated if the required visual references to continue the approach (typically the runway threshold lights, markings and pavement) have not been established.

The published alternate minimums for Gaithersburg indicate the “RNAV GPS-A and RNAV GPS Rwy 14 Not Authorized” when local weather is not available.

The airport is equipped with an AWOS-3 accessible on 128.275.

The lowest minima published for the RNAV 14 is 789 feet with a required visibility of 1 mile.

The approach profile for the Mooney as seen on FlightAware.com shows the airspeed for the approach was not stabilized and fluctuated between 180 and approximately 95 mph.  The normal approach speed of the Mooney M20J is roughly 75 knots on final.

The accident is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. A preliminary report is expected within a few weeks, followed by the final report in 12 to 18 months.

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