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NTSB: Pilot reported struggles before Hamptons plane crash

An air traffic controller declared an emergency after the pilot said he was attempting to fly visually without instruments and had an unreliable attitude indicator, the report said.

Rescuers search for victims of the Oct. 13

Rescuers search for victims of the Oct. 13 plane crash. Photo Credit: James Carbone

The pilot of a small private plane reported he was struggling to fly in poor visibility and could not rely on a key flight instrument before his aircraft broke apart and crashed into the sea off the Hamptons in early October, killing all three aboard, federal officials said.

The Piper PA-34 Seneca flown by its owner Munidat "Raj" Persaud, 41, of Waterbury, Connecticut, "was substantially damaged when it experienced an in-flight breakup" and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Quogue on Oct. 13, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a preliminary report.

One witness said the aircraft, which took off from Danbury, Connecticut, did a nosedive from out of the clouds, and another witness reported hearing a "pop" and seeing two large pieces of the plane falling from the sky, according to the report.

An air traffic controller declared an emergency after the pilot said he was attempting to fly visually without instruments and had an "unreliable" attitude  indicator, a flight instrument that informs the pilot of the orientation of the aircraft relative to the horizon, according to the report. There was light rain, wind and clouds reported in Westhampton Beach when the plane crashed around 11 a.m., the report said.

The aircraft sank to the ocean floor at a depth of about 20 feet, the NTSB report said. “A portion of the right wing was recovered floating above the airplane about ½ mile offshore,” it added.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement Thursday there was "no history of any accidents or incidents on the aircraft."

Aviation experts Matthew Clarke and Ross Neher, attorneys based in Portland, Oregon, said in-flight breakup can happen "when an aircraft is making extreme maneuvers, which could occur when a pilot is trying to get around bad weather, or has inadvertently entered into zero visibility conditions and has become spatially disoriented.  A working attitude indicator can be critical in keeping from becoming spatially disoriented when in zero visibility conditions."

In a statement they said that "radar data needs to be analyzed to determine whether this aircraft made any extreme maneuvers shortly before falling out of the sky." 

Officials with the NTSB, which cautioned its findings could change before they are finalized, did not comment on why the plane might have broken apart in the air. 

A spokeswoman for Piper Aircraft, based in Vero Beach, Florida, said she was not aware of any other PA-34 Seneca that had broken apart in midair.

Piper, she said, is fully cooperating with the NTSB. "This is an ongoing investigation and as such we are not allowed to comment on it," she said by telephone.

Jennifer Landrum, 45, of Augusta, Georgia, and Richard Terbrusch, 53, of Ridgefield, Connecticut, also were killed in the crash of the twin-engine plane that FAA records show was manufactured in 1978. The couple, making the best of a long-distance relationship, were flying to Charleston, South Carolina.

Persaud was a flight instructor who owned two firms that train pilots in Connecticut. The Piper was a recent purchase; with the FAA confirming his ownership is dated July 2. Persaud was certified to fly single- and multi-engine and instrument planes, the NTSB said, adding he reported 4,000 hours of flight experience on his latest medical certificate.  

After taking off that Saturday morning, Persaud told controllers he expected to fly with “visual flight rules,” at an altitude of about 8,500 feet above the mean sea level, the NTSB said. 

However, Persaud kept climbing, rising through 12,900 feet and then hitting 15,700 feet; at that point a Boston air traffic controller advised him that other aircraft in the area were not flying visually but with their instruments, the NTSB said.  

Asked to confirm that he could still fly visually, Persaud answered that he was “trying to maintain visual meteorological conditions,” and he mentioned the unreliability of the attitude indicator.

That is when the controller declared an emergency, and suggested the pilot head toward Westchester County Airport, which said it had visual flight conditions, the NTSB said.

Persaud asked for the ceiling — the height of the cloud tops — and told it was 19,000 feet, he replied he would climb to that altitude. Informing the controller that the airplane was flying visually “on top,” Persaud, still flying southeast, said he could not descend below the clouds, the report said.

The pilot then requested directions to areas where the weather was clear; again, the controller instructed him to turn west, but the plane, according to the NTSB, continued on its southeast course.

“About 2 minutes later, after the controller repeated the instruction to turn west, the airplane entered a figure-eight turn and began to descend rapidly,” the NTSB said. “Radio and radar contact was lost shortly thereafter.”

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