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Federal probe underway in crash of plane that hit Maryland power lines

FAA and NTSB are investigating; cause of crash is not yet known

Wreckage of the small plane that hit power lines in Montgomery County on Sunday.
8 min

One person rescued from a small plane that slammed into a Maryland power line tower was released from a hospital Monday as federal investigators launched a probe into the crash.

The crash in suburban Montgomery County outside Washington led to a complex, hours-long rescue operation, caused power outages to about 120,000 homes and businesses and prompted the state’s largest school district to cancel classes. The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board said Monday they are investigating the incident, although the cause of the crash probably won’t be known for at least several days.

As investigators began to inspect the wreckage, questions surfaced about whether the pilot was flying too low Sunday amid challenging weather. Local and state officials said they received no reports of mechanical problems.

The single-engine Mooney M20J struck a power line tower and wires about 5:40 p.m. Sunday roughly a mile from the Montgomery County Airpark — a once-rural area now surrounded by subdivisions that has recorded several plane crashes in recent decades. In a region with strict airspace restrictions, the airport is popular among private pilots because of its relative proximity to downtown Washington.

Montgomery County fire officials said the pilot and a passenger suffered orthopedic injuries, trauma and had “hypothermia issues.” Maryland State Police identified the pilot as Patrick Merkle, 65, of the District and the passenger as Janet Williams, 66, of Marrero, La. Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said one was discharged from a hospital and the other was in stable condition and improving. He didn’t identify who was released.

Emergency personnel responding to multiple 911 calls — including from inside the suspended aircraft — quickly encountered a challenging scene in the darkness as the plane hovered 100 feet in the air. Crews had to stabilize the aircraft on the tower before attempting a rescue.

Utility crews cut power as first responders determined that accessing the plane via two specialty boom crane trucks would be safer than climbing the tower, officials said.

“We were talking to the two folks in the airplane to give them reassurance,” Goldstein said. That communication included calls every 30 minutes to conserve their cellphone batteries.

Pilot, passenger rescued after plane gets tangled in high-voltage lines in Maryland

The aircraft, which began service in 1977, had departed from Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., according to the FAA.

Flight-tracking data shows the plane began a trip from Gaithersburg to White Plains about 8:40 a.m. Sunday, then landed in New York more than an hour later. It then began the return trip to Maryland in the afternoon, according to data from tracking service Flightradar24.

A small plane crashed into high-voltage power lines in Montgomery County, Md., on Nov. 27, cutting power to nearly 100,000 homes and businesses. (Video: Reuters)

The plane is registered to MFC in downtown Washington, with Merkle listed as president, according to FAA records. Attempts to reach company officials Monday weren’t successful.

Weather in the Washington region at the time of the crash was misty and rainy, but it wasn’t clear whether those conditions factored into the crash. Federal officials said NTSB investigators will lead the probe.

The same aircraft was flown several times in November, including on round-trip flights between the Gaithersburg airpark and Maryland’s Carroll County Regional Airport the day before and the day after Thanksgiving, according to an activity log recorded by FlightAware data also indicated the aircraft was flown on a nearly two-hour flight and a seven-minute flight on Nov. 18.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) on Monday questioned whether the plane was on its designated flight path, saying the aircraft was flying too low as it headed to the airpark. A flight plan filed with the FAA had indicated the Gaithersburg airport was its destination.

“If it wasn’t on the flight path, why wasn’t it on the flight path? Because it was too low from what I heard from where it should have been in the approach, and obviously, they didn’t know there were wires and a pole here,” Elrich said at a news conference near the crash site. “That, to me, is a problem.”

Goldstein said the pilot was using instruments onboard to navigate the approach to the airport when the plane became entangled in high-voltage lines while making contact with two power line towers. Experienced pilots have federal approval to fly with instruments at night and in difficult weather.

A D.C. pilot with the same name and who would be the same age survived a crash three decades ago. On Aug. 4, 1992, a single-engine plane piloted by a Patrick Merkle struck a canyon in Farmington, Utah, according to an account in the Salt Lake Tribune. Parts of the wings and tail section were ripped off as the plane flew through pine trees, according to the report, which said the fuselage struck the side of a mountain. An NTSB report on the crash indicated five people suffered minor injuries and the cause was “the pilot’s poor inflight decision.”

Sunday’s crash occurred at a Pepco transmission line near Rothbury Drive and Goshen Road in the Montgomery Village area.

The plane struck the power lines of the first tower before becoming embedded in a second tower to the south, Goldstein said. Images from the scene showed the plane entangled in cabling and the framework of a tower that supports the transmission lines.

Robert W. Mann Jr., a New York-based aviation analyst, said power lines are a significant issue for pilots because not all are listed on charts used for navigation. Animated maps in the aircraft’s display or on a device such as an iPad show possible obstructions, including radio towers, mountaintops or other terrain features, but not all hazards are depicted, he said.

Donna Cooper, president of Pepco’s Washington region, said the company deenergized power lines in the area, allowing for the complicated rescue operation. It took crews seven hours to extricate Merkle and Williams, then three hours more to remove the aircraft from the tower.

Power was restored at 11:58 p.m. Sunday, officials said, and the plane was removed about 3:30 a.m. Monday — three hours after Williams was removed. Residents who spent hours watching the incident unfold clapped as she was lowered in a bucket. The pilot came down about 11 minutes later.

“They are a whole lot lucky,” Elrich said.

Capt. Prendi Garcia of the state police said the agency has no record of incidents involving Merkle flying in Maryland. He said the agency will support the NTSB investigation and that the aircraft will not be moved until federal investigators finish their on-scene inspection.

The NTSB said its investigation will look into the pilot, the aircraft and weather at the time of the crash. Outside experts not affiliated with the probe said investigators also might examine the tower, including its height, whether it and power lines are lighted and whether they are in the approach path to the airpark.

NTSB investigators were working on a logistical plan for the examination of the wreckage Monday afternoon, the agency said.

In a statement, the NTSB said its review “will include steps such as interviewing the pilot and the passenger as soon as they have recovered and are in a stable condition; looking at the aircraft’s maintenance records and history; and gathering reports of the weather and air traffic surrounding” near the airpark at the time of the crash.

Pepco officials said crews on Monday continued to assess damage to power equipment and the tower, then would make any necessary repairs.

Montgomery County Public Schools and Montgomery College canceled classes before the rescue. The crash also disrupted operations on Metro’s Red Line and at two hospitals, officials said.

This crash was the latest to rattle the surrounding Gaithersburg community. Since 1983, the area has seen at least 30 plane crashes at or near the airpark, which opened in 1959 to relieve aviation congestion at Reagan National Airport.

Six people were killed when a twin-­engine plane, on its final approach to the airport, crashed into a home in December 2014. That incident caused alarm among residents, who demanded safety changes.

Gaithersburg residents push for safety changes at Montgomery Airpark

Jeff Guzzetti, a former FAA and NTSB investigator who isn’t connected to the current probe, said poor visibility caused by the weather could be to blame, although he said mechanical problems can’t be ruled out.

“From my experience, it’s usually exactly what it looks like, which is an airplane encountering poor visibility and low ceilings as it’s descending near an airport and it got a little bit too close to the ground,” Guzzetti said.

He said the NTSB will examine what weather information and forecast Merkle had available before he departed and whether he received updated information during the flight.

“They’re lucky to be alive,” Guzzetti said.

Dana Hedgpeth, Martin Weil and Dan Morse contributed to this report.