The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has preliminarily determined that the March 25 crash of a small, single-engine plane near Elgin was caused by a “loss of engine power.”
The report was posted Friday on the NTSB’s website.
The crash killed the pilot, identified several days afterward as Wolfgang Buergel, 71, of East Aurora, N.Y. Buergel was known there as “The Country Pilot,” renowned in the greater Buffalo, N.Y., and other areas as “the best pilot” some of his flying students had ever met.
“(Buergel) was killed, and the airplane destroyed by the impact forces and post crash fire,” the NTSB wrote in the report.
Although the crash took place moments before 2 p.m. March 25 into a small wooded area along Larry Jeffers Road near White Pond Road and I-20, the NTSB indicated it could not determine exactly from where or when the Piper PA-20 Pacer took off.
The report stated the flight originated from East Aurora -- other indications were that it took off from an Amherst, N.Y., area airport -- “at an undetermined time.” Buergel was reportedly heading to a Lakeland, Fla., air show.
In a 2006 Vintage Airplane article, Buergel said he was able to make the trip from New York to Florida in eight hours, which would indicate an airspeed of approximately 130 mph. Based on that calculation, and with the crash occurring at 2 p.m., Buergel would have likely left New York around 9 a.m.
The NTSB’s description of witness statements closely matches what witnesses told reporters that afternoon.
“According to witnesses, the airplane’s engine was ‘sputtering’ and they observed the airplane circling an open field,” NTSB investigators wrote. “As the airplane got lower, they observed the wings rocking left and right and then the airplane went inverted (upside down) and came straight down and impacted into trees and burst into flames.”
The NTSB confirmed Buergel’s destination, stating that his son indicated his father was flying to the Sun ‘N’ Fun festival in Lakeland and that he did so every year.
Investigators said the engine was still attached to the airframe following the accident. According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) website, the Piper PA-20 was manufactured in 1950. The FAA’s online information provided an airworthiness date in 1955 for the plane’s reciprocating Lycoming 0-290 engine. The website also indicated that a “certificate” was issued to Buergel in 1972 with an expiration date of Sept. 30 of this year.
Further FAA documentation obtained by the Chronicle-Independent showed that Buergel last registered the aircraft in February 2000. He had also registered the Piper in March 1972 after purchasing the plane from a man named William Lowder. The plane may have been re-registered two years later, based on additional stamps and marking on the same registration application.
The FAA also provided documents concerning the Pacer’s air worthiness in the form of major repair and alteration reports Buergel had to submit. The most recent was submitted in November 2003 as his own certified mechanic. On that form, Buergel indicated he had “installed used airworthy forward and rear spars in (the) left wing. Fabricated new leading edge skins from 2024 T3 Alclad aluminum sheet and installed on wing. Installed new wingtip bow. Recovered left wing, aileron, flap, aft fuselage, stabilizers, elevators and rudder with grade A fabric. Finished with 4 cross coats of clear, 3 cross coats of silver and 3 cross coats of colored butyrate dope” (an adhesive or lacquer).
Buergel submitted a similar report to the FAA eight months earlier, March 2003, with a larger number of alterations or repairs. Buergel also submitted such reports in June 1999, June 1989 and May 1974. Other owners submitted similar reports in May 1960, April 1958, August 1957, May and October 1954, January 1952 and January 1951.
The FAA also provided a copy of October 1955 and October 1954 aircraft inspection reports when the plane was owned by Richard Weatherbee of West Edmenston, N.Y. FAA inspectors found it airworthy both times. The plane had also been inspected in January 1953 when the plane was owned by Morehouse Hospital Inc. of Benkleman, Neb. The plane was manufactured by the Piper Aircraft Corporation, which also submitted an airworthiness report/application in December 1950.
The FAA documentation did not speak to annual inspections conducted in recent years. FAA spokesperson Kathleen Bergen said those records are kept in an aircraft logbook that are the property of the aircraft owner.
“The FAA requires an annual inspection for this type of aircraft,” Bergen said. “The inspection is done by an experienced FAA airframe and powerplant mechanic with authorization by the FAA to conduct inspections. According to the aircraft logbook, the aircraft had been inspected according to FAA requirements.”
Berger said the FAA and NTSB would examine that logbook as part of their investigations, but deferred to the NTSB for further inquiry.
NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said the logbook would be part of a “docket” of the investigation when a final report is released, which he estimated could happen between three and nine months from now.