Airplane accidents are never pleasant news, but when the accident involves a high-profile individual such as the son of an assassinated U.S. president, movie star or a congressional figure, public interest in obtaining all of the details seems to run higher than had the accident involved someone like me or other comparatively non-public pilots. So it was with the accident in June of last year in which Dr. Richard Rockefeller, the 65-year-old son of billionaire banker and philanthropist David Rockefeller, was killed. Although the accident was noticed nationally, it grabbed headlines in the New York City metro area, where the Rockefellers have been prominent figures for many decades.
Richard Rockefeller was the great grandson of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the founder of Standard Oil. He was a nephew of former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who also had served as governor of New York. The day before the accident, Richard had attended his father's 99th birthday celebration at the family estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. He had flown his Piper PA-46-500TP Meridian single-engine turboprop to Westchester County Airport (HPN), which is located near Pocantico Hills in the suburbs north of New York City.
Richard Rockefeller was president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, chairman of the Doctors Without Borders' U.S. Advisory Board for more than 20 years and had been a board member of Rockefeller University. He was practicing medicine in Falmouth and Portland, Maine, and was married with two children and two stepchildren.
The NTSB's final report on the accident was released in July. The accident occurred shortly after 8 a.m., eastern daylight time on Friday, June 13, 2014. The airplane was destroyed when it struck trees and crashed shortly after takeoff from runway 16 at HPN. The weather conditions were about as low IFR as you'll find at Westchester, with visibility about 1/4-mile in fog and a 200-foot overcast ceiling. The wind was from the east at six knots. Rockefeller had filed an IFR flight plan for the trip to Portland International Jetport (PWM), Portland, Maine. The personal flight was conducted under Part 91.
Rockefeller had flown from PWM to HPN the previous day. Upon arrival at one of the FBOs that handle smaller general aviation aircraft, Rockefeller ordered fuel. The FBO put in 60 gallons, which filled the tanks. Rockefeller told FBO personnel to expect him back at 9:00 the next morning for his return flight to PWM.
The following morning, Rockefeller arrived at the FBO a little after 7:30, instead of 9:00. The customer service representative at the front desk of the FBO told investigators that Rockefeller said, "Good morning," and she told a line worker to bring his airplane from the hangar to the ramp. Rockefeller said, "I'd like to have the plane facing the wind, since it is strong this morning." Rockefeller then went to the restroom, returned and picked up his bag from a couch, and headed toward the door saying, "Thank you, goodbye, see you next time." The front desk representative responded, "...get rid of this terrible weather for us," which elicited a laugh from Rockefeller.
At about 7:50 a.m., Rockefeller radioed Clearance Delivery to obtain his IFR clearance. He was cleared to fly the Westchester Four standard departure, to expect clearance to 17,000 feet 10 minutes after departure and to fly direct to PWM. When the controller advised him to give them five minutes notice before starting his engine to allow time to get him in the departure sequence, Rockefeller replied, "...that five minutes should start now, so go ahead on the routing pool."
When there had been no word for about six minutes, Rockefeller radioed, "...just want to make sure you know I'm up on the ground and waiting clearance." At about 8:01, Rockefeller was given a slightly revised clearance that included a provision for him to expect clearance to 19,000 feet 10 minutes after departure. He then advised ground control he was ready to taxi.
At about 8:08, he had reached the departure end of runway 16 and advised the tower controller he was "...ready to go in sequence." About 20 seconds later, he was cleared for takeoff. Although the NTSB report places the time of the accident at about 8:08 am, it likely was a couple of minutes later if the times given in transcriptions of FAA radio communications are accurate.
FAA transcripts revealed that at about 8:11, the ground controller asked the tower controller if the Piper Meridian had gotten airborne. The tower controller replied, "I, uh, hope so." At about the same time, a controller at the New York TRACON LaGuardia Area position called the Westchester tower controller to ask if Rockefeller's plane had gotten airborne. The TRACON controller advised that he saw a target on radar for about a mile off the end of the runway, but it was now gone. The tower controller's responses to continued inquires as to whether the Piper was airborne included, "I have no idea. We have zero visibility."
Only five radar targets identified as being Rockefeller's airplane were captured, and all were over HPN airport property. The first three radar targets began about mid-point of the 6,500-foot-long runway, and each indicated an altitude of about 500 feet MSL. The airport elevation was 439 feet. The next and final two targets depicted a shallow right turn at 600 feet and 700 feet, respectively, before radar contact was lost. The final radar target was about one-half mile from the accident site.
The airplane came within about 20 feet of hitting a house, crashing in front of horse stables on residential property. Two witnesses at the stables told investigators that the weather was "dark, rainy, and foggy." They both reported first seeing the airplane when it appeared out of the clouds. They said the airplane hit trees in a level attitude, and was enveloped by a cloud of "blue smoke" with the odor of diesel fuel.
There was a strong odor of fuel at the wreckage site, and all major components of the airplane were accounted for. The initial impact point was in a tree approximately 60 feet high, and the airplane hit several other trees before hitting the ground.
Examination of the wreckage didn't reveal any mechanical malfunctions affecting the engine or airplane systems.
According to FAA records, the airplane was manufactured in 2001. It used a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-42A, 850 hp turboprop engine. The most recent annual inspection was completed June 3, 2014, at a total aircraft time of 1,927.2 hours.
Rockefeller held a private pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine land and instrument airplane. He had a current third-class Special Issuance medical certificate.
His most recent logbook showed 5,371.6 total flight hours. An entry showed he had completed an instrument proficiency check and flight review in the Piper Meridian a month before the accident.
Rockefeller's personal assistant told investigators that he had a 10 a.m. meeting in Portland on the morning of the accident. The meeting was with eight to 10 people involved in raising funds for a prominent public service organization in the state of Maine, in which he had been deeply involved. His assistant told investigators that he was "...unusually punctual, never late and would have been focused on arriving on time." The assistant said, "He would have checked radar weather reports and adjusted his departure time to accommodate a break in weather or forecast for worsening conditions."
According to Lockheed Martin Flight Service (LMFS), Rockefeller didn't obtain a weather briefing from either LMFS or from a Direct User Access Terminal Service (DUATS) vendor. The pilot filed an IFR flight plan through DUATS, but didn't include an alternate airport in the flight plan. An alternate would have been required under FAA regulations since the weather at PWM at the proposed time of arrival included an overcast ceiling at 300 feet with 1-1/2 miles visibility in light rain and fog.
The NTSB report made note of sensations that can be generated when taking off into IFR conditions. It cited the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook, which states, "Because of inertia, the sensory areas of the inner ear cannot detect slight changes in the attitude of the airplane, nor can they accurately sense attitude changes that occur at a uniform rate over a period of time. On the other hand, false sensations are often generated leading the pilot to believe the attitude of the airplane has changed when, in fact, it has not. These false sensations result in the pilot experiencing spatial disorientation."
The NTSB pointed to the FAA's publication Medical Facts for Pilots, which explained somatogravic illusions, which can occur when there's acceleration or deceleration. At takeoff into solid IFR, acceleration adds to the pilot's perception of the aircraft pitching up. It can lead him or her to push the control yoke forward to pitch the nose of the aircraft down.
The NTSB also cited an FAA Advisory Circular, "Aeronautical Decision Making." The FAA said, "Pilots, particularly those with considerable experience, as a rule always try to complete a flight as planned, please passengers, meet schedules, and generally demonstrate that they have 'the right stuff.'" The FAA's circular referred to "get-there-itis" which it said, "...clouds the vision and impairs judgment by causing a fixation on the original goal or destination combined with a total disregard for any alternative course of action."
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's failure to maintain a positive climb rate after takeoff due to spatial disorientation (somatogravic illusion). Contributing to the accident was the pilot's self-induced pressure to depart and his decision to depart in low-ceiling and low-visibility conditions.
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, N.Y. 10602-0831.