Clipping tree may have caused plane to crash
Investigators said Jeff Needham’s plane went into a dive and crashed just minutes into flight because it clipped a pine tree while making a steep-banked turn.
Why the plane was flying at such a low altitude when it made the turn remains unknown.
The plane crashed Sept. 1 off Pioneer Trail and Washoan Boulevard killing four South Lake Tahoe residents. El Dorado County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Bob Johnston said through the use of dental records Needham, 43, his wife Maria, 30, and Mark Michelsen, 48, were all confirmed dead. Deputies identified the fourth victim, 27-year-old Todd Johnson, by comparing X-rays of a bone he broke before the crash and interviewing family and friends.
The single-propeller Piper Malibu, purchased by Needham six months ago, was headed to San Diego when it flew south out of the airport.
National Transportation Safety Board Investigator Bob Crispin said the plane left on a downwind departure headed for the lake. According to South Lake Tahoe air traffic controller Marc Murphy, many pilots feel the lake is a safe place to climb to a higher altitude.
Crispin reported that questionable weather conditions, overcast with rain squalls, may have also persuaded the pilot to reverse course and turn towards the lake before heading south to his destination.
Witnesses reportedly told Crispin that the plane, a six-seater, was in a steep banked turn to the east just before it dived. Crispin said such a turn makes the plane heavier and more difficult for the pilot to maintain altitude.
“As he was completing the turn he clipped 10 to 15 feet off an 80- to 100-foot pine tree.” Crispin said. “After that the airplane hit another tree then crashed.”
Investigators said they did not find a substantial amount of luggage at the crash site, but the plane did have modified fuel containers in its wings that would allow 10 extra gallons of fuel. The pilot’s flight plan listed only two people, but four were found at the crash site.
“With four people we’ve got to look at the numbers and see,” Crispin said. “He may have been fine even if he filled the tanks to capacity, but we haven’t recomputed the weight and balance yet.”
The plane broke into three pieces leaving the center fuselage, tail section and engine scattered about 10 to 15 feet behind two homes on Washoan Boulevard and Acoma Circle.
The wreckage is being kept in storage in Pleasant Grove, Calif., an area 10 to 15 miles north of Sacramento.
Crispin said at this point in his investigation he hasn’t found any reason to believe the plane had a mechanical malfunction. He said his final report may take six to nine months to complete.
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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Christmas Engines for South Lake Tahoe Fire Rescue and Lake Valley Fire Protection District will be out and about in December spreading holiday cheer.