Nov. 28, 2011, was scheduled to be a long day for the pilots and medical attendant flying Lifeguard N59773, a Piper PA-31-350 Navajo Chieftain operated by Trans North Aviation Ltd., doing business as Travel Care International. The crew would leave Crawfordsville, Ind., Municipal Airport (CFJ) early in the morning, then dead-head two legs to West Palm Beach, Fla., International (PBI) where they would board a patient and his wife for a two-leg flight to Chicago Executive Airport (PWK).

The crew started the day at 0700 hr.; stopped for fuel in Perry, Ga.; landed at PBI; boarded passengers; departed PBI at 1642; stopped for fuel at Jesup-Wayne County, Ga., Airport at 1830; departed Jesup at 1900. At 2250, the Chieftain crashed just 2.5 mi. north of PWK as the pilot attempted to dead-stick the fuel-starved Navajo to an off-airport landing. The pilot and two passengers were killed. A pilot-rated passenger and the medical attendant survived, but with serious injuries.

The NTSB has yet to publish a probable cause for this accident, but there is no question that the engines had stopped and the fuel tanks were empty when the airplane made its controlled descent into wooded terrain at Riverwoods, Ill. The logistics of the flight were a bit complicated.

The 58-year-old airline transport rated pilot held an airplane multiengine land rating and commercial pilot privileges for single-engine land airplanes. He held a flight instructor certificate with single-engine, multiengine and instrument airplane ratings, and a type rating in the Swearingen SA-227 Metroliner. He had passed a 1-hr. check ride in the PA-31-350 with the operator's chief pilot on June 7, 2011. The pilot had accumulated 6,607 hr. of total flight time, 120 hr. of that time in the PA-31-350. He had flown 171 hr. of total flight time in the previous 90 days, 12 hr. of that time in the Chieftain.

The pilot-rated passenger, an employee of the operating company, was 24-years-old. He held a commercial pilot certificate with single-engine land, multiengine land and instrument airplane ratings. He was a flight instructor with single-engine, multiengine and instrument airplane ratings. He had accumulated 314.3 hr. of total flight time, 259.5 hr. of PIC time, 66.6 hr. of multiengine time and 7 hr. of SIC time in airplanes associated with the operator. The operator's chief pilot told investigators that the pilot-rated passenger was compensated by the operator for the positioning flights to PBI, but was considered a passenger on the flights from PBI.

Paperwork for this flight seems a bit fragmented. The manifest for the southbound legs listed the pilot-passenger as the pilot-in-command and the senior pilot and medical crewmember as “other crew.” This form stated that the crew started their duty period at 0700 when they departed CFJ and they ended their duty period at 1430 in PBI.

Investigators said another load manifest form, also dated Nov. 28, 2011, for the PBI to JES to PWK legs lists the older pilot as the PIC and the pilot-rated passenger and medical crewmember as “other crew.” This form indicated that this crew started their duty period at 1430 at PBI. The form stated the flight departed from PBI at 1642 and landed at JES at 1830. Fueling records showed the airplane was topped-off with 165 gal. of avgas and then departed JES at 1900 destined for PWK. The duty period ending time was not completed.

Chicago area cloud tops at about 2200 hr. were at 3,000 ft. PWK was overcast at 1,400 ft. with winds out of the north at 9 kt.; visibility of 10 mi.; temperature 2 C and dew point was -2 deg. The published inbound course for PWK's ILS runway 16 approach was 161 deg. magnetic with a published straight-in DH of 893 ft. MSL (HAT 250 ft.). The crossing altitude for the locator outer marker PAMME was 2,279 ft. The distance between PAMME and the touchdown zone was 4.9 nm. The touchdown zone elevation was 643 ft. The published weather minimums for the ILS Runway 16 approach were a 300-ft. ceiling and three-quarter mile visibility. MDA altitude for the circling approach was 1,140 ft. MSL and the height above the airport was 493 ft. AGL.

Just before 2200 hr., the flight was receiving vectors from Chicago approach when the crew declared a fuel emergency reporting that the airplane was gliding without power toward Chicago Executive. Investigators were able to interview the surviving pilot-passenger and review ATC recordings to learn more about the sequence of events that led to the crash.

The pilot-passenger told investigators that the flight from PBI to PWK was routine and that the engines were operating “OK.” The right engine was new, he said, and had been installed on the airplane about 15 days prior to the flight. He believed the engine's gauges (CHT, oil temp, oil pressure) were not accurate.

The pilot “bumped up [enriched beyond POM settings] the mixture” about one gph during the en route segment, he continued, because the engine was “breaking in.” Generally, the pilot set power settings from a card that was kept in his window visor.

As the airplane approached the Chicago area near the south end of Lake Michigan, the senior pilot became concerned with the fuel situation. He switched from the main tanks to the auxiliary tanks to use all the fuel there, then switched back to the main tanks. The pilot-passenger said he observed that “the last quarter of the main tanks was consumed pretty fast as it appeared on the gauges.” The right fuel-flow warning light illuminated as the airplane maneuvered north of PWK. The pilot selected the crossfeed valve to its ON position. The fuel warning light extinguished.

The pilot radioed ATC requesting direct routing to the PWK outer marker, but the controller denied the request because of traffic, stating that she would have to vector the flight up the shoreline first. The fuel warning light illuminated again and the pilot declared an emergency. In response the controller cleared the flight directly to PWK. The pilot-passenger said he had no idea of the amount of fuel that remained in the fuel tanks. (He had studied the fuel system workings for the first time the day before the accident flight.)

Moments later, the right engine “started to shudder as the airplane descended through the overcast. The pilot initiated a left turn, leveled out on a westerly heading and then the engines quit. At that point, the pilot-passenger recalled, the airplane began to “coast.” The pilot moved the mixture to idle/cutoff, feathered the propellers and asked the pilot-passenger to look up the airplane's best glide speed. The landing gear and flaps were retracted. The pilot stayed on instruments until the airplane broke out of the overcast at about 1,400 ft. AGL.

During the descent the pilot-passenger was communicating with ATC. [See transcript for the exact communications.] The airplane turned to a southbound heading. The approach controller asked if the flight had the airport in sight and the pilot-passenger initially replied, “No.” He later told investigators he advised the pilot of suitable landing sites, but the flight was unable to get to them. With about 700 ft. to go, the pilot-passenger pointed out a dark (unlighted) spot and the pilot turned to it. The pilot-passenger said the airplane scraped the tops of trees with the first tree striking the pilot's side and then crashing through the window. Both the pilot and the pilot-passenger were on the flight controls, which then “went limp.” The pilot-passenger said he tried to keep the airplane away from nearby houses, but both of his yoke handles broke off.