The Unknown in the Machine
What evil lurks in the heart of an airplane?
By Peter Garrison
September 24, 2019
In December 1996, a pilot and his companion checked out a Beech T-34 Mentor from the flying club at the Memphis Naval Air Station in Millington, Tennessee. They departed at about 4:15 in the afternoon on a 300-nautical-mile trip to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. By the time they approached the Gulf Coast, it was dark.
Several witnesses reported seeing the airplane—or at least its navigation and anti-collision lights—flying westbound “oscillating both vertically and laterally” and then “rotating about the longitudinal axis” before pitching nose-down. The pitch of the engine sound was heard rising, then there was a sound like an explosion, followed by that of an impact with the ground.
The pilot had not been in contact with any ground station, but Houston ATC radar recorded a target that was most likely the T-34. Squawking 1200, the target flew at 3,500 feet for 12 minutes then began a gradual descent. After two minutes, it abruptly climbed from 3,200 feet to 3,600 feet in 12 seconds, then descended 1,500 feet in the next 12 seconds before disappearing from radar. During this time, the direction of flight was generally south- or southeast-bound, not westbound, as witnesses reported. The discrepancy was unexplained.
The wreckage of the T-34 was found about two-tenths of a mile south of the location of the last recorded transponder code, in an area with “minimal ground-reference lights.” It appeared that the right wing had separated in flight, followed by the empennage surfaces.
The National Transportation Safety Board attributed the accident to “the noninstrument-rated pilot’s intentional operation of the airplane with known…inoperative attitude indicator and directional gyro…with an estimated time of arrival after official twilight.”
Story credit: Flying Magazine; https://www.flyingmag.com/aftermath-known-and-unknown/