NTSB: Engine problems led to Macon plane crash that killed two pilots

Nearly two years after a small plane crashed into a south Bibb County swamp, investigators don’t know much more about what happened to the engine than they did the night of the crash.

Pilot Tony Cabeza noticed a drop in oil pressure and asked to land at Middle Georgia Regional Airport on May 27, 2013.

The 58-year-old, an experienced airline transport pilot, was cleared to runway 23, and Robins Air Force Base was notified that the plane would be flying through its airspace.

With the Macon landing strip in Cabeza’s sight, the controller asked if he needed further assistance.

“Not at this time,” Cabeza replied.

By the time he made first contact with the Macon tower, the Piper PA-32R-300 had lost power.

Cabeza asked to land at Robins and was told to contact the base tower.

No one heard from him again. The Robins tower could see smoke rising from less than a mile away.

Cabeza and his 71-year-old passenger, Julius Gilreath, who was also a pilot, died at the scene.

The 1976 four-seater plane crashed eight-tenths of a mile north of the Robins runway and about three miles from the regional airport.

Both men died of multiple blunt trauma, according to GBI autopsies. A post-crash fire damaged the cockpit, forward cabin and left wing.

It was just after 6 p.m. Memorial Day when Houston County firefighters learned of the crash, which was actually just across the Bibb County line.

Field training officer Matt Hancock was one of the first on the scene. “I was familiar with the area,” he said.

Large trees had been harvested two to four years earlier.

“It was flooded over from where the river floods,” said Hancock. “Some places it was chest high, but mostly around your waist. Snakes were running around out there. We kept on moving. They did not bother us.”

A crew of nearly a dozen first responders lugging rescue equipment trudged their way through the murky water, continually encountering submerged stumps.

The plane was smoldering by the time they got to it. A couple of blasts from fire extinguishers put it out.

From what Hancock could tell, the plane came in at an angle, hit a stump and came to rest on the ground.

Crews coming in from Bibb County took three hours to cut a path to the wreckage and remove the bodies.

Since then, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have been examining the plane to determine what caused the catastrophic failure.

In a report issued this week, the NTSB determined that “oil starvation” caused the engine failure.

At Lowe Aviation at Middle Georgia Airport, Henry Lowe said a drastic loss in oil pressure can happen for a variety of reasons, from a leak to an unseen problem inside the engine.

“After the oil pressure goes down, you don’t have long,” Lowe said.

The NTSB report noted a near-complete obstruction of the oil suction screen and evidence of metal debris, which could indicate the blockage choked off the oil supply, Lowe said.

The investigation’s review of maintenance records shows airworthiness directives for replacement of the oil cooler hose and oil filter converter plate gasket were not done, but no specific conclusion was noted about what impact, if any, that might have had.

“Extensive post-crash fire and heat damage to the engine components precluded a determination of the cause of the oil starvation,” the report stated.

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.