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Mon, Aug 15, 2005

Three Dead In Erie, Apparent Fuel Exhaustion

Two Couples Returning From Niagara Falls In Ill-Fated Cherokee

Media reports in Erie, Pennsylvania Sunday told the story of a tragic, and if the story told by reporters there is correct, unnecessary, accident, that left three family members dead and a fourth clinging to life.

James Gordon Conk, 52, was returning to his Smyrna, Delaware, home, after a trip to Niagara Falls in his Piper Cherokee. He had four souls on board: himself, his wife Susan, 44; his sister, Terri Lewis, and her husband, Dale Lewis, 49. Both the Conk and Lewis families lived in the same street, Conks Lane, in Smyrna.

The Niagara Falls escape for the two couples began going wrong when Conk made a fuel stop, apparently a planned fuel stop, in Jamestown, New York. (Chautauqua County/KJHW).

But the FBO, Jamestown Aviation, was closed. On Saturdays, its business hours are from 7:30 AM to 6:30 PM. An after-hours number is posted, according to Jamestown Airport officials. (According to AirNav.com, after-hours service is available by prior arrangement, or with a fee).

This is a common arrangement among FBOs. In my experience from both sides of the FBO desk, more threaten to charge the fee than actually do; it depends mostly on whether the worker coming in to fuel the customer is a paid employee or a family member doing it in order to participate in the glamour of aviation).

At this time, no one knows whether Conk did not see the after-hours phone number posted on the FBO door; or whether he decided not to call. If he did decide not to call, no one will likely ever know whether he was trying to save time, money, or perhaps hassle. Perhaps he misjudged the fuel on hand -- whatever he was thinking perished with him, so we can never know.

But his decision to launch from Jamestown and fuel elsewhere (the news reports disagree on whether he intended to go into Erie International, or whether he diverted there) was a fateful decision.

At some point on that flight Conk must have realized he was in a desperate fuel situation. In the dark, over unfamiliar ground, desperately low on fuel, with people he loved in the plane.

He called Erie International Airport, reporting that he was critically low on fuel and was trying to make the airport.

Conk did not succeed. The Cherokee crashed just a half mile short of the runway he was trying to reach, on the grounds of the Millcreek golf course, at 9:45 Saturday night. The aircraft flipped onto its back, trapping the victims inside.

James and Susan Conk and Dale Lewis were dead at the scene of the accident, killed instantly by massive, multiple trauma, according to Lyell Cook, Erie County coroner.

Terri Lewis alone survived; she was taken to Hamot Medical Center in Erie, where she remains in critical condition.

The wreckage of the Cherokee was removed Sunday afternoon and impounded for investigation. The mishap will be investigated by the FAA and by the National Transportation Safety Board. The accident will likely be listed among Monday's preliminary accident reports on the FAA website.

The FAA Airmen database glitched repeatedly on Conk. One run showed him as having a current 3rd Class medical, but no airmen certificates. A second run at the database revealed no record at all for Conk. A third run at the database showed the same medical certificate, and a private pilot license with privileges in Airplane, Single Engine Land -- with date of information (which when the database is working properly should be last rating earned) of August 9, 2004.

James G. and Susan Conk, were one of several families of Conks in Smyrna, Delaware, in the largely rural DelMarVa peninsula, just north of Dover, the sleepy state capital. James owned a radio repair business, and he was active in politics as the treasurer of the Libertarian Party of Delaware. His sister, Terri Lewis, the sole survivor of the crash, is the secretary of the party.

FMI: www.ntsb.gov

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