NTSB preliminary report: Plane broke apart in air

Piper PA-44 headed to Craig Airport when it crashed in Glynn County marsh


BRUNSWICK, Ga. – The National Transportation Safety Board's released its preliminary report on a last week's twin-engine plane crash along the Georgia coast.

The Piper PA-44 was destroyed on March 24 after breaking up mid-flight and crashing into a marsh area just east of Brunswick, according to the report. The two private pilots inside -- Andres Santiago Lopez, 28, of Jacksonville, and Adam Christopher Griffis, 31, of Alabama -- were killed.

Several eyewitnesses reported hearing a thud or explosion and saw debris falling from above. The wreckage was found submerged in a creek two days later.

DOCUMENT: NTSB's preliminary report

The plane departed Concord Regional Airport in North Carolina shortly before 4 p.m. headed for Jacksonville Executive at Craig Airport. The NTSB said the plane crashed shortly before 6 p.m.

Preliminary radar information indicated around 5:40 p.m. the airplane was flying at 8,000 feet when the Federal Aviation Administration instructed the pilots to descend. The pilots acknowledged the command but no further voice recordings were received from the flight.

Around 5:44 p.m., the last recorded radar data indicated the airplane was at 300 feet above ground level.

According to representatives of the flight school, the pilots had flown from Craig to Concord earlier that day and had an airplane change for the flight back to Craig.

The airplane was registered to and operated by ATP Aircraft and was operated as a training aircraft.

The investigation into this plane crash could have big implications for hundreds of pilots in the state of Florida who fly the same Piper PA-44. If NTSB investigators find out the plane broke apart in the air as the result of structural failure, planes like it could be grounded all together.

Aviation expert Ed Booth said the pilot and passenger's fates were sealed when their aircraft broke apart in the air, a rare and alarming incident in one of the most popular planes for training pilots in Florida. Booth said the Federal Aviation Administration could take action.

"They could require grounding of all of these kinds of airplanes for inspections," Booth said. "If it passes, it could return to service. They could adjust the maximum life of the airplane. That could ground some of the fleet. Let's say 12,000 -- that would ground a lot of airplanes right now."

Booth said a critical question federal investigators will soon answer is just how many miles the plane logged in the air. Most Piper PA-44's were built in the 1970s, and their service life shouldn't exceed 16,462 hours.

What 911 callers heard on the ground was likely the pilot trying to regain control of the airplane, which had just started it's descent, Booth said. He said it's during the descent when aircraft experience the maximum amount of stress in flight.

Booth said the noises heard on the ground are consistent with the sounds of an aircraft breaking apart in the overhead. And because most Piper PA-44's are 35 years old, he expects federal investigators to move swiftly.

"The fact that there are hundreds of these in daily service training service pilots makes it imperative that the FAA moves rapidly to determine if this was a fleet-wide problem or an isolated incident," Booth said.

The Piper PA-44 has a remarkable safety record, with only 24 recorded fatal accidents in 35 years of service. Two of those fatalities were suicides.