Radio chatter before fiery St. Augustine plane crash reveals pilot chose shortest runway for takeoff

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – News4JAX is learning more information about the moments before a small plane crashed Thursday in a wooded area of St. Augustine, sending a couple to the hospital and killing their dog.

Witnesses said the 1999 Pipet Malibu struggled to gain elevation during takeoff from the Northeast Florida Regional Airport.

While the cause of the crash is still under investigation, a recording of the preflight communication between the pilot and air traffic control is shedding light on how the pilot’s decision may have played a role in the crash.

The recording revealed that the pilot decided to use the shortest runway at the airport. Aviation experts said the pilot should have used the longest runway at the airport because the short one did not have the best wind direction for takeoff.

In the recording, the tower control gave the pilot discretion to navigate the plane from the starting location to another location on the tarmac, which would give the plane slightly close to 700 more feet for takeoff in the southwest direction. It’s unclear if the pilot back taxied before takeoff.

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Certified flight instructor and commercial pilot Capt. Robert Katz, who has over 40 years of flying experience, said that based on the conversation between air traffic control, ground control and the pilot, it appears the pilot should have chosen runway one-three, which is 8,000 feet long.

“The runway he chose to depart from is at most 2,700 feet long and it’s possible he did not use the entire length of that runway that was available to him. Aggravated by the fact that the wind would have been a quartering tailwind by about 10 degrees to his departure path. That is undesirable under any circumstances,” Katz said.

When piloting an airplane, it’s always better to take off into the wind. A headwind provides greater lift to get airborne without having to increase ground speed.

Aviation Expert Ed Booth also said the pilot’s choice was “not favorable” for that day.

“He chose a runway not favorable to that type of airplane. It was too short. It was not lined up with the prevailing wind that day. Every other airplane at the airport that day was using runway one-three -- 8,000 feet and 150 feet wide,” Booth said.

Records show that the pilot acquired the plane two years ago, and previous flight data shows the plane was flown from Jacksonville days prior to the crash. It’s unclear why the pilot chose the shorter runway and if the plane had a mechanical issue.

The pilot and his wife are recovering from injuries sustained during the crash.

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