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NTSB Prelim: Cirrus SR20

Accident Occurred During The Student Pilot’s Fourth Takeoff Following Three Full-Stop Landing

Location: Toms River, NJ Accident Number: ERA23FA358
Date & Time: September 2, 2023, 22:18 Local Registration: N420PB
Aircraft: Cirrus SR20 Injuries: 1 Fatal
Flight Conducted Under: Part 91: General aviation - Instructional

On September 2, 2023, at 2218 eastern daylight time, a Cirrus SR20, N420PB, was destroyed when it was involved in an accident near Toms River, New Jersey. The student pilot was fatally injured. The airplane was operated as a Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 solo instructional flight.

According to the student pilot’s flight instructor, the purpose of the flight was for the pilot to perform solo takeoffs and landings at night. In written statements, other pilots operating at and around Ocean County Airport (MJX) stated that the student pilot was communicative over the airport’s common traffic advisory frequency and identified his airplane as “Cirrus” rather than by its registration number. One pilot stated that he was on short final for landing on runway 24 when the student pilot keyed the pilot-controlled lighting and extinguished the lights. The pilots described a clear night with wind estimated “from the west” about 10 knots. 

According to one pilot, “RWY 24 was particularly ‘dark’ off the takeoff end due to vegetation/trees below resulting in very little ground references at night – instrument monitoring was essential on climb out.”

Preliminary Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) track data indicated that the accident occurred during the student pilot’s fourth takeoff following three full-stop landings. During the climb over the runway, the airplane’s first target was acquired at 275 ft mean sea level (msl) and 62 knots groundspeed. The airplane climbed to 425 ft before it leveled for about 30 seconds between 425 and 500 ft. The airplane’s groundspeeds in the climb slowed and were steady at 56 knots and once level, the airplane accelerated slowly to about 90 knots groundspeed, where it initiated a descending, accelerating westerly turn until the target disappeared. Two separate airport surveillance videos captured the airplane; the first video showed the airplane in a shallow climb after takeoff before the airplane continued out of frame. The second showed the airplane in a descent below the tree line, followed by a postimpact fire.

The student pilot was issued a third-class Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) medical certificate on March 9, 2022. He reported 0 hours of flight experience on that date. Pilot logbooks were not immediately available, but the student pilot’s flight instructor estimated that the student pilot had accrued between 65 and 70 hours total flight experience, all in the accident airplane.

According to FAA and maintenance records, the airplane was manufactured in 2003 and was powered by a Continental IO-360-ES, 210-horsepower engine. The airplane’s most recent annual inspection was completed on May 18, 2023, at 1,692.5 total aircraft hours.
The airplane came to rest in densely-wooded state forest property covering over 1 million acres adjacent to MJX. The wreckage was examined at the accident site and all major components were accounted for at the scene. The composite airplane was fragmented along a 300-ft long wreckage path, which was oriented about 290° magnetic, and the wreckage was consumed by postcrash fire. The accident ignited a wildfire that prevented access to the wreckage for about 36 hours.

The initial impact point was in trees about 40 ft tall. The damage to the trees was consistent with a shallow, wings-level descent through the trees to ground contact. Pieces of angularlycut wood were found along the wreckage path. The cockpit instruments and components were consumed by fire and contained no usable information.

The engine was found inverted, with both propeller blades loose in their hubs. The blades displayed similar twisting, bending, and tip curling as well as thermal damage. The engine case was heavily damaged by impact and fire.

The wreckage was recovered from the site and flight control cables, pulleys, turnbuckles, bellcranks, and the flap actuator were laid out for examination. Aileron control continuity could not be confirmed due to impact and or thermal damage. Rudder and elevator control continuity was established through several breaks from both impact and fire. Measurement of the flap actuator revealed dimensions consistent with the flaps being fully retracted. The Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) was deployed, and displayed evidence of deployment due to impact forces.

The engine was suspended and rotated by hand at the propeller. Continuity was established from the powertrain through the valvetrain to the accessory section. Compression was confirmed on all but the No. 5 cylinder using the thumb method. The No. 5 intake valve boss was fractured by impact and the valve was separated from its guide. Examination of the cylinders revealed normal wear and combustion deposits. 

The magnetos were destroyed by fire. The high-pressure fuel pump was displaced by impact, removed, and partially disassembled. The pump rotated smoothly, and the internal vanes were intact. The flow divider was opened; it contained fuel, and the screen and diaphragm were intact.

The No. 1 upper aft crankcase through-bolt was displaced by impact, and the nut on the case side was fractured. The external oil filter was destroyed by impact and fire. The internal oil filter screen was clean of obstruction or debris. Oil was present throughout the engine. The propeller was removed for further examination. Sun and moon data for Toms River, New Jersey, at the time of the accident revealed that the moon was in the eastern sky at 090° and was 13° above the horizon at the time of the accident.

FMI: www.ntsb.gov

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