On Sept. 16, 2017, a Mooney M20C crashed at North Branford, Connecticut, killing the pilot and his passenger, a prominent NASCAR race car driver. It wasn’t until Dec. 17, 2019, that the NTSB adopted a probable cause of the accident. It really took a lot of digging, along with a good deal of patient examination of aircraft components, to figure out some of what likely happened.
The NASCAR driver was Ted Christopher, who won 42 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour races along with six NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour victories. He was the 2001 winner of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championships. Christopher, 59 years old, was a native of Plainville, Conn. He frequently raced at three NASCAR-sanctioned tracks in Connecticut and at the Riverhead Raceway in Calverton on New York’s Long Island. The accident flight was to take him to Francis S. Gabreski Airport (KFOK) at Westhampton Beach, N.Y., from where he would go to the track for his scheduled races.
After the accident, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France issued a statement saying, “We are all saddened to learn of the tragic plane crash this afternoon that claimed the lives of NASCAR driver Ted Christopher and the aircraft’s pilot. As a championship driver on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and New England short tracks, Christopher was a throwback to NASCAR’s roots. He was a tough racer’s racer, and his hard-driving style and candid personality endeared him to short track fans throughout the country. He will be missed throughout the racing community, in the garage and, especially, in the hearts of his many fans. NASCAR has his family and friends in its thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.”
Christopher and the 81-year-old pilot had been longtime friends and flying companions for more than a decade. One of Christopher’s race crew members told an investigator that the driver told him he probably could fly the airplane because the pilot had been teaching him the pinch hitter basics in case there ever was an emergency.
The pilot owned the Mooney and a Beech Baron and was a partner in a Grumman Yankee. Friends said they frequently made the trip between the Robertson Field Airport (K4B8) and Gabreski, with Christopher often wearing his racing suit during the flights so he’d be all set when he got to the race track. The Mooney was based at Westhampton Beach, and the pilot routinely flew to Plainville to pick up Christopher and go back to KFOK, making another subsequent round trip to take him back home.
The Mooney had been issued a standard airworthiness certificate in 1964, when it left the Texas factory. The light, compact, retractable-gear four-seater was powered by a Lycoming IO-360-B1B engine rated at 180 horsepower. It had a three-blade constant speed prop. The fuel capacity was 52 gallons, carried in two 26-gallon tanks. The maximum gross weight was 2,575 lbs.
The pilot held an impressive number of certificates and ratings as a pilot, instructor and mechanic. He had an ATP certificate with a rating for airplane multiengine land and commercial privileges for single-engine land and sea airplanes. He was a flight instructor for single-engine and instrument airplanes. He was qualified as a flight engineer for jets and also held a mechanic’s certificate with airframe and powerplant ratings. One FAA certificate he didn’t hold, however, was a medical certificate. His most recent application for a second-class medical certificate was submitted on Oct. 16, 2006. In 2007, the FAA denied him medical certification.
On the last medical application, he reported a total flight experience of 31,300 hours. There was no additional flight experience information for the pilot included in the NTSB’s report. An FAA Air Safety Inspector reported that no pilot logbooks nor aircraft logbooks could be located.
The FAA inspector spoke with a partner of the pilot in the Grumman Yankee, who said that the pilot usually flew the Baron, but it was down for maintenance. The FAA inspector quoted him as saying that the pilot/owner kept the airplane records in a milk crate.
The pilot took off from KFOK at about 10 a.m. and flew to K4B8. When he got there, he asked a line attendant to fill the airplane’s tanks. The right tank took 9 gallons, and the left tank took 6.8 gallons. The line attendant told investigators that the pilot checked the fuel using the fuselage fuel sump and then chatted with several other pilots. The attendant said the pilot and his passenger departed at about 12:30 p.m.
A pilot who had been at Robertson Field Airport told investigators that he watched the Mooney depart from Runway 20. “We were taxiing to Runway 02 at the time the Mooney departed,” he said. “The time is fairly accurate based on the fact that I had called Bradley TRACON (Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn.) a few minutes later (at 12:41 p.m.) to get a clearance (so I have a time stamp on my phone for that call). The winds at 4B8 were calm. Nothing unusual was noted about the Mooney takeoff,” the pilot reported.
The witness pilot said that his flight departed on Runway 02 at 12:48, and ATC gave them turn to the south. He said the weather south of Robertson was overcast at approximately 1,500 to 2,500 feet, with good visibility above and below and no turbulence.
The accident flight was made VFR, and the pilot did not contact air traffic control. Radar data obtained from the U.S. Air Force showed primary radar targets, which investigators associated with the accident flight. The first target, which appeared at about 12:42, was about 10 miles south of Robertson Field at about 1,200 feet MSL. The returns continued for about nine minutes on a south-southeast track, remaining between 1,200 and 1,600 feet MSL. Deducting typical terrain elevation would have put the Mooney at about 900 feet to 1,300 feet AGL. The track disappeared about 1 mile northwest of the accident site, about one-third of the way to Westhampton Beach. In another few minutes on the southerly track, the airplane would have started to cross the waters of Long Island Sound, not something that many pilots like to do at low altitude.
Investigators found that the airplane hit 75-foot-tall pine trees in a nose-down attitude. The wreckage path, about 175 feet long, was oriented on a heading of about 010 degrees, opposite of the flight route to Westhampton Beach. The investigators surmised that the pilot had turned and was trying to make it to an open field, which was about 1,500 feet north of the crash site. Reinforcing that was their finding the airplane’s landing gear in the extended position with the landing gear selector “down.” The wing flaps were retracted, which would be logical if the pilot was concerned about inducing drag and reducing the airplane’s ability to glide.
The 12:53 weather observation at Tweed-New Haven Airport, about 9 miles southwest of the accident site, was visibility 10 miles, broken clouds at 1,400 feet AGL, wind variable at 3 knots, temperature 24° C, dew point 19° C and altimeter 30.16.
Investigators found that two of the airplane’s three propeller blades were not damaged in the crash, providing evidence that the prop was not under power at impact.
Investigators did an intensive examination of the engine and accessories, including removing a cylinder to facilitate inspection of the crankcase. They found oil in the engine, and the pistons, valves and crankshaft appeared lubricated. The cylinders produced suction and compression. Investigators checked the magnetos by turning them with an electric drill, and they produced electricity as they’re supposed to. The induction air box and air filter were damaged by the impact but didn’t appear to have suffered any observable preimpact problems.
Fuel was found in both tanks at the accident site. The fuel system seemed to be checking out properly, and liquid that smelled like aviation fuel was found from the engine-driven fuel pump all the way to the fuel selector. The investigation removed the fuel selector valve from the plane and tested it using air pressure. When pressurized air was fed into the fuel outlet port with the selector handle in the “left” tank position, nothing passed through the valve. The selector handle was moved to “off” and back to “left.” Still nothing, and no air went through in the “off” position or in the rear unmarked position. When the fuel selector valve handle was put in the “right” tank position, air passed freely. Again, the valve was tested in the “left” position and no air passed. The valve handle seemed to move freely with what was described as “no unusual resistance.”
To try to find out what was going on, the investigators took the time to disassemble the fuel selector valve. Inside, they found what was described as “a spongy mass of reddish fibers consistent in appearance with red cotton shop towel fibers., which immediately raised investigators' concerns. ” The spongy mass was about 5/8-inch long and about 3/8-inch wide. When the fuel drain screen was examined, the same type of fibers were found covering about 5% of the surface.
Just when and where the shop towel fibers got into the fuel selector valve was not determined by the investigation. Without the aircraft maintenance logs, there was no way to tell just what had been done to the airplane and who did it. If investigators had any suspicions, they didn’t make them part of the report.
The fiber finding, along with evidence that the engine had lost power, was enough for the NTSB to determine that the probable cause of the accident was a total loss of engine power due to fuel starvation as the result of foreign object debris that had clogged the fuel selector valve and prevented fuel from flowing. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s selection of a low cruising altitude, not unusual for short trips like the one he had undertaken, but a choice that reduced the time available to troubleshoot the loss of engine power and afforded fewer forced landing site options, and improper maintenance of the airplane, which allowed a portion of shop towel into the fuel system.
The NTSB didn’t say whether investigators ripped apart all fuel components inclusive of the tanks looking for a misplaced towel, but it did report on finding a homemade fuel selector tool in the wreckage. It was about 9 inches in length and made up of white PVC pipe. The top of the handle on the device had a label that said “fuel.” On one side was a label that said “left” and on the other side was, you guessed it, a label that said “right.” The bottom had a cutout that fit over the fuel valve selector handle. While the Safety Board said it appeared to be designed to switch the fuel tanks, “the reason for its fabrication and use was unknown.” Could it have just been an extension so to make it easier for the pilot to switch tanks? Could have it been a way to apply extra force to get a binding selector valve to turn? The Safety Board didn’t speculate; nor did they find any evidence of its possible use.
Although the Safety Board didn’t conclude that medical issues were involved in the accident, it did report that toxicology testing by the FAA found the pilot used five medications for blood pressure control, heart attack prevention, erectile dysfunction and pain relief. It also reported that he had coronary artery bypass surgery in 2001 and obtained a special issuance medical certificate in 2002. His medical certificate was denied in 2007 after he had an internal defibrillator placed to help deal with cardiac issues.
An autopsy found severe cardiac disease. While the Safety Board reported that this could place the pilot at risk for chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations or fainting, it also said, “it is not likely that this condition contributed to the accident.” It did say some red shop towel fibers did, and it would be good to know how they really got there to help us keep them out of the planes we fly.
Peter Katz is editor and publisher of NTSB Reporter, an independent monthly update on aircraft accident investigations and other news concerning the National Transportation Safety Board. To subscribe, visit www.ntsbreporter.us or write to: NTSB Reporter, Subscription Dept., P.O. Box 831, White Plains, NY 10602-0831.