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Piper Navajo had engine trouble, leaking fuel before fatal ferry flight

Photo from Clay County Sherrif's DepartmentProblems were reported well before the July 20 fatal flight involving a Piper PA-31P Navajo (N200RA) in Kearney, Missouri. Two weeks before the accident, the owner received a Special Airworthiness Certificate: Special Flight Permit to ferry the plane from Mosby, Missouri to Kingman, Kansas to complete an annual inspection. Three pilots declined to perform the ferry flight and before the crash occurred, a large amount of fuel was seen leaking from the inboard fuel tank. The plane was barely airborne before it veered off and disappeared behind a line of trees, hitting power lines and trees before impacting a soybean field and catching fire. The owner, 79-year-old Alan "Doug" Moler, was from Valley Center, Kansas and according to Fox 4 News was heading to an airport in the Wichita area when he stopped at the Midwest Regional Air Center to refuel. The NTSB's initial report states that the owner and a mechanic had been working on the Piper Navajo for about six months. The most recent annual inspection for the plane was completed in 2015. Two witnesses had reported that during an engine ground run two weeks before the accident flight, the right engine was difficult to start and did not produce full power. Witnesses also said that the inboard fuel tanks leaked "horribly" any time the plane was fueled. Two weeks before the flight Moler received a special permit to ferry the plane from Missouri to Kansas for an annual inspection. The NTSB reported that three pilots had declined to perform the ferry flight for the owner, leaving it up to Moler to complete. Before the flight, Moler requested an airport lineman to fuel the plane. When the plane was fueled with 18.53 gallons of Avgas, an unknown amount was seen leaking from the right-wing inboard fuel tank. The mechanic told the NTSB that the plane had 140 gallons on board, divided between both the 50-gallon inboard wing fuel tanks and the 40 gallons in the right-wing auxiliary fuel tank. Cellphone video recorded the takeoff sequence, showing the plane veering right and attempting to rotate before it landed back on the runway. The footage also showed the plane in flight near the runway end, yawing to the right and climbing parallel with the rising terrain. Witnesses saw the plane scarcely clear a line of trees beyond the departure end of the runway, make a left turn and disappear behind the trees. A witness north of the airport heard a loud plane before seeing it appear from behind the trees and head toward his home. He saw the plane hit two wires on a power line and impact a large tree canopy in his front yard. The plane continued in a left bank toward a soybean field where it impacted the terrain in a nose-low, left bank attitude. The plane then slid several hundred feet and caught fire. The plane had well over 100 gallons of fuel on the plane at the time, contributing to the large post-crash fire. The accident site is located 1.6 nautical miles north of the runway. The wires are about 737 feet before the main wreckage and 65 feet above ground level. The second point of contact, the tree canopy, is about 60 ft AGL and 150 feet after the wire strike. The plane hit the ground and the debris path extended in the field roughly 313 feet on a heading of 254 degrees to the main wreckage. The main wreckage consisted of the fuselage, empennage, right-wing and left wing which were separated near normal orientation and location. The FAA and NTSB traveled to the scene and the airplane was retained for further examination. The Clay County Sheriff's Office was on the scene investigating after the accident occurred. The department reported that when the plane hit the power line it knocked down live wires, causing residents of a nearby street to be blocked from their homes until the wires could be safely removed from the road. Debris scattered outside of the soybean field was left until federal aviation authorities could arrive to conduct their investigation, leaving several areas and roads closed. Nearby residents were also without power until the lines could be repaired. The ferry accident was plagued with many problems before the crash occurred. The engine trouble and fuel leakage were red flags, but so was the long stretch of time before the plane was taken to an annual inspection. The owner had been granted a Special Airworthiness Certificate, which is issued to aircraft that may not meet applicable airworthiness requirements but is capable of safe flights. These are given to fly from point A to point B for repairs or storage, delivering to a purchaser, conducting flight tests, evacuating from danger, and customer demonstration flights that passed flight tests or excess weight operations. The Piper Navajo had not had an annual inspection in roughly eight years. While the plane was granted a special certification to fly it to an annual inspection, these are given to aircraft that are capable of safe flight. The leaking fuel and engine trouble was indicative of a deeper problem and had the potential to contribute to the deadly crash. The NTSB has not revealed a cause for the crash nor has the agency speculated on a potential reason. The agency is still investigating the crash and will release a final report in 12 to 18 months.
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