2013-03-14 / Front Page

Weather Blamed for Plane Crash

By Erich T. Doerr

Adverse weather conditions caused the airplane crash north of St. Ignace that claimed two lives December 3, 2011, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report, released Thursday, March 7. The plane was attempting to fly from Mackinac County Airport in St. Ignace to Mackinac Island and had apparently turned back to the mainland when the accident occurred. The accident claimed the lives of both men on board, 29-year-old Great Lakes Air pilot Joseph Pann, Jr., of St. Ignace, and 52-year-old Thomas Phillips, of Mackinac Island and Kirkland, Washington.

“The whole thing is just sad,” said Paul Fullerton, Great Lakes Air owner and pilot, Monday, March 11. “It was a horrible thing.”

The NTSB’s report blamed that lack of visibility, combined with overall poor flying conditions, for the crash. The weather in St. Ignace was foggy and rainy the night of the accident. Winds were at three knots, visibility was between five and seven miles, and scattered clouds were at 300 feet with overcast clouds at about 700 feet. The temperature was holding above freezing at about 39 to 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Noted in the report, a Great Lakes Air pilot told investigators that as a general guideline, they look to have a ceiling of at least 1,500 feet to make a night flight to the Island, and the pilots, including Mr. Pann, were discussing this with a new pilot two days before the accident.

Mr. Pann was flying lower than usual, trying to stay below the clouds when the accident occurred. The plane crashed in a wooded area when, according to the NTSB, it clipped a tree then hit the ground 25 feet away. The plane slid across the ground and broke up as it collided with more trees.

The single-engine charter aircraft was a 1975 Piper PA-32-260 Cherokee 6 with the tail number N33315 that was registered with Great Lakes Air. The company purchased it in 1997. No witnesses saw the crash but the report cited one who heard it, claiming he heard what sounded like a “plane getting lower and lower” before a sound that sounded “like a typical movie airplane crash sound.”

The 4.5-mile flight to the Island should only take about six minutes and the plane was scheduled to arrive at about 8 p.m. There were no known communications between the airplane and any air traffic control facilities and when it didn’t arrive, several groups, including local police and the U.S. Coast Guard, were called in to search for the missing plane.

The wreckage, with the remains of both men inside, was found the following day by another airplane taking part in the search. The wreckage was approximately three miles north of St. Ignace and 1.6 miles north of the airport.

Both men died from injuries sustained in the crash and the report shows neither was under the influence of any substance.

Mr. Phillips had an East Bluff cottage on Mackinac Island. The report said Mr. Phillips initially called another company the night before the accident about flying him to Mackinac Island. He was planning to spend the night there, inspecting his cabin for a planned family Christmas gathering, then fly to Gaylord the next morning for a meeting. The other company’s pilot told him to call Great Lakes Air and schedule the flight, which he did.

On the day of the accident, the NTSB said, the poor weather led Great Lakes Air to run no scheduled flights. Another Great Lakes Air pilot reported that Mr. Pann seemed “relieved” he wouldn’t have to fly that evening. The report said Mr. Pann then called Mr. Phillips and left a voice message, saying the weather was not very good but would improve later, so he should take his time travelling to St. Ignace. Mr. Phillips then called back and said he would.

Mr. Pann was the only person on duty at the airport that night. About two hours before takeoff, he spoke with another Great Lakes Air pilot and he said weather was improving and he could see the bluff on Mackinac

Island. The other pilot said he also checked their Automated Weather Observing System and told Mr. Pann that it was reporting overcast clouds at 800 feet.

After his conversation with the other pilot, Mr. Pann called Mr. Phillips and told him weather looked all right to get to the Island. An employee for Great Lakes Air who was off duty but lives near the airport heard the plane take off at around 8 p.m. and everything sounded “normal,” the NTSB reported.

After approaching, but not reaching, Mackinac Island, the airplane turned back over Lake Huron as a result of the poor weather conditions, the evidence shows. Radar from the National Track Analysis Program data provided by the Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center showed four unidentified radar targets in the area of Mackinac Island during the time of the flight, in all certainty the Great Lakes Air plane. The first was north of the Mackinac Island airport, with the second further north, and the third east of the Island. The fourth target indicated the plane was over the water, meaning Mr. Pann made a turn north to return to St. Ignace.

Remaining unanswered is why the plane crashed where it did, well north of the airport and off the common route between St. Ignace and Mackinac Island. The crash site location 1.2 miles south of Kewadin Shores Casino may give a hint. The NTSB’s report said during the investigation another Great Lakes Air pilot said the very well-lighted casino can at times be easier to see at night than the airport. The theory, proposed by the pilot and adopted by the NTSB, said Mr. Pann might have seen the casino lights and flew north toward them, planning to then follow the lakeshore back to the airport afterward.

Mr. Pann joined Great Lakes Air in February 2011. At the time of the accident he had flown 506.9 hours for the company and had recently accepted a new job flying DC-9 jets for a charter aircraft company. He would have begun training with his new employer nine days later. Mr. Phillips was a pilot himself and a regular passenger on Great Lakes Air. The crash is the only accident resulting in injury in the 20-year history of Great Lakes Air.

In addition to being a pilot, Mr. Pann had previously worked as a flight instructor. He was graduated from Newberry High School and his family is from McMillan. He left a wife and young son.

Mr. Phillips was an executive for Amazon.com. His loss was noted by the international business community. He leaves a wife and two daughters.

Obituaries for both men were published in The St. Ignace News December 8, 2011.

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