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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 28, 2011

Pilot killed as plane crashes in Berne

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — A man from Ohio was flying his plane to Albany when he crashed into a wooded field in Berne on Monday night, the police say. He died upon impact.

Seth Garry, a young boy who lives nearby on Stage Road and was in the hot tub at his home Monday night, said he saw the plane going down.

“I saw it was going crooked, and it was down really low,” Garry said.

The 1972 Piper Cherokee plane belonged to Steven G. Blackburn, 57, of Grove City, Ohio. His family could not be reached for comment.

He was flying into Albany for three days to attend a business conference, Acting Sheriff Craig Apple told The Enterprise Tuesday. No one else was in the plane, and no one else was injured when it crashed in a wooded area.

“It’s very tough to say the cause of the crash, but I’ll tell you this: He was supposed to be flying on a northwest-to-southeast flight path, and the wreckage is facing north,” Apple said. “So, it seems at this point that he may have gotten hung up in the clouds, and tried to get out of the clouds, and became disoriented. When you’re in the clouds, they use the term ‘spatial disorientation’; you don’t know where you are, if you’re upside down — you don’t have a clue.”

A National Transportation Safety Board investigator said at the scene that it is still too early to determine the cause of the crash.

Blackburn had been flying for roughly seven years, Apple said.

“Right now, the wreckage indicates he was traveling roughly 138 miles-an-hour at the time of the crash,” he said of Blackburn. “The final resting point was in a field across the street from 351 Elm Drive, in a heavily wooded area.”

The cause of the crash is still under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration; the NTSB, in cooperation with an investigator from Piper Aircraft; and the Albany County Sheriff’s Department.

Brian Rayner, a Senior Air-Safety Investigator from the NTSB, described for The Enterprise the slowly forming picture of what happened to Blackburn’s plane Monday night.

“It came in through the trees, skipped across the ground, and ended up back in the woods, upright, shedding parts as it went,” Rayner said Wednesday at the crash site. “Both wings and [one of the] horizontal stabilizers were shed from the airplane.”

The top half of the cockpit was torn completely from the aircraft, and twisted chunks of metal remained where the wings once were.

“I think it got caught up in the trees,” Rayner said of the roof. “I don’t think it landed on its roof because, otherwise, you would see the instrument panel more displaced. Plus, you can see the center windshield post sticking up; that’s about the standard angle as installed. And, there were some pieces up above the ground suspended in the trees. I think, as it bounced up through here, it took the roof off and came back down.”

Rayner went on to say that it was too early to form an opinion on what caused the crash, and explained the NTSB’s “methodical” investigative process in cases like this. He thanked the sheriff’s department for its help securing the site and getting witness accounts. The information-gathering at the crash site, Rayner said, is only one third of the investigation.

“We look at the airspace, the airframe, and the airman,” he said; the term “airframe” refers to the aircraft itself.

The plane, witness statements, and the condition of the terrain — including tree damage and “ground scars” — are considered “perishable evidence,” he went on.

“So, we’re going to document all that first,” said Rayner. “The medical examiner will provide us with information; and toxicology is always done. So, we’ll wait for those results from the FAA laboratory out in Oklahoma City. We’ll also look at the history of the airframe, its maintenance history, and so on. While we’re here, we will try to separate the difference between impact damage, and possible pre-impact mechanical issues. As of this point, we see no evidence of mechanical malfunction or anomaly, but we still have our examinations to finish.”

The investigation will also include looking at Blackburn’s flight training, and his experience as a pilot after completing his training.

“You complete the mosaic, if you will, once all three areas are done, to the degree where you feel like you’ve gone to the end of the evidence,” Rayner concluded. “I’ll present all that in a factual report to the five-member safety board, and it’s the board that determines the probable cause, and any contributing factors.”

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