Plane Crash: Proper Precautions Would Have Made Fueling Error Very Difficult

The Las Cruces Sun-News continues its coverage of the August 27, 2014, crash of an air ambulance (Cessna 421C airplane) that killed four people. Slack Davis Sanger attorney Mark Pierce provided information and insight about the crash in the latest article below.

Plane crash: Proper precautions would have made fueling error ‘very difficult,’ attorney says
By James Staley, Las Cruces Sun-News

Numerous safeguards should have been in place to prevent the type of fueling error that preceded last month’s fatal crash of a plane leaving the Las Cruces Airport, an attorney said.

“If everything was as it should have been, it would have been very difficult,” said Mark Pierce, a Texas-based attorney and pilot, talking about the plane receiving the wrong fuel on Aug. 27.

A technician filled the twin-engine, propeller-driven plane with jet fuel instead of the required aviation-grade gasoline about half an hour before the evening crash, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board released last week.

The NTSB’s report did not indicate whether that mistake caused the Cessna 421C to crash. But Pierce said engine failure reported by the crew onboard and black smoke seen by witnesses on a nearby interstate are consistent with such a fueling error and subsequent crash.

Investigators smelled jet fuel the next day at the crash scene, the report states.

Aside from being a commercial pilot and certified instructor, Pierce works for a law firm in Austin, Texas that has handled air ambulance crashes similar to last month’s incident.

The aircraft that went down was registered to Elite Medical Air Transport out of El Paso and, that night, was transporting a Las Cruces man to Phoenix for cancer treatment.

The NTSB report doesn’t specify what measures the Las Cruces Airport or Southwest Aviation, the company that operates there and the fuel farm, had in place to ensure aircraft receive the correct fuel.

A copy of the fuel farm lease between the city and Southwest Aviation, obtained this week by the Sun-News though a public records request, provides few details about the fuel other than listing the two types — jet fuel and aviation gasoline, known as avgas — stored there.

The lease requires Southwest Aviation to carry insurance and states the city, any elected officials and employees will be held harmless for any liabilities or claims against the facility. Pierce said that type of wording is standard in such arrangements.

Hal Kading, owner of Southwest Aviation, has declined to discuss his company’s general policies or practices related to fueling aircraft, saying that the company is part of the ongoing investigation.

Pierce said there should have been numerous safeguards.

First, since 1987, federal rules required all Cessnas like the model that crashed to be modified so that a jet fuel nozzle wouldn’t fit into the aircraft’s fuel port. The jet fuel nozzles are typically spade shaped, Pierce said.

“It’s almost inconsiderable that in 2014 the modification wouldn’t have been done,” Pierce said.

Federal Aviation Registry data, available via its website, doesn’t list the year that specific Cessna 421C was built. But that model was not produced after 1985, records show.

The plane was up to date with its certificate, records show, and was operated by Amigos Aviation of Harlingen, Texas.

Pierce said investigators will also look at the fuel truck, to ensure it had the proper nozzle. Avgas nozzles are smaller than those generally used for jet fuel. He said it’s possible that a different nozzle was used to fill a smaller aircraft with jet fuel, then was not replaced to fill the Cessna.

Records show that the pilot, 29-year-old Freddy Martinez of El Paso, was in the cockpit that evening when he ordered 40 gallons of fuel from a line service technician, the NTSB report states.

The NTSB report states that after Martinez ordered the fuel, an unidentified technician drove a fuel truck up to the plane and refueled it, adding 20 gallons near each wing.

Martinez helped the technician replace fuel caps, the report states, then signed the corresponding fuel ticket after they both walked inside.

Onboard with Martinez were three others: Fredrick Green, 59, a Las Cruces man being transported for cancer treatment; flight paramedic Tauren Summers, 27, of El Paso; and flight nurse Monica Chavez, 35, of Las Cruces.

Jet fuel smells and looks different than avgas, Pierce said, but the fueling process likely wouldn’t have released enough fumes for those nearby to tell the difference.

A propeller-driven plane won’t run on pure jet fuel, Pierce said, but a misfueled plane can because it typically has a mixture of avgas. That eventually leads to unplanned combustion inside the engine and, ultimately, failure, he said.

The complete investigation will take some time, Pierce said, and the FAA takes a “hard look” at operators when air ambulances crash.

City Council discussed improvement to the airport at Tuesday’s meeting, but those were part of the airport’s long-term plan and unrelated to the crash, City Manager Robert Garza said.

Link to story.