Carvair N83FA Crash: Griffin, Georgia, April 1997

Serendipity is a weird thing.  Having read The Honourable Schoolboy, I wanted to see if there was any factual basis for Charlie Marshall flying round South-East Asia in a Carvair. I  looked at Wikipedia and found that an Australian Carvair had been abandoned at Pnomh Penh in 1975.    I also read this:

"Perhaps the best-known Carvair crash was the one at Griffin in April 1997, 
where on its takeoff run the (fifth production) Carvair suffered catastrophic 
engine failure, failed to become properly airborne, and crashed into a vacant 
Piggly Wiggly supermarket past the airport perimeter, killing both pilots.”

I don’t know why this caught my imagination but it did. I know next to nothing about Griffin, Georgia. But something made me want to follow up just a little.

The accident happened on Friday, April 4, 1997 at 00:16. The aircraft was registered as N83FA. It was originally built in 1944 as a C-54A and was the fifth Carvair to be converted by Aviation Traders in 1961. The  crew had filed a flight plan from Griffin-Spalding County Airport to Americus, Georgia apparently to pick up a load of car parts for onward transportation to Rockford, Illinois. 12 miles from Rockford is the  Chrysler Belvidere Assembly Plant, which was producing the Dodge Neon at the time.

What happened that night, according to the NTSB reports, is this:

"During the airplane's takeoff roll, about 3/4 down the 3,700 foot runway, 
a witness reported that the color of the #1 exhaust flame changed from 
blue to yellow, accompanied by an audible change in the engine power level. 
The nose of the airplane yawed left and the left wing dipped. Directional 
control was regained and the takeoff continued. Skid marks were found about 
650 feet before the departure end of the runway that continued about 1360 feet 
to an abandoned grocery store impacted by the plane. About 315 feet before the 
building, the left wing contacted a privacy fence, and a utility pole, resulting 
in a fire at the disrupted left wing main fuel tank. A pilot/mechanic who helped 
dispatch the airplane observed that the elevator was free as it taxied. 
Fire damage to all engines precluded a detailed post crash examination of 
essential fuel and ignition systems"

The reports from the NTSB (incident number ATL97FA057) are available from the NTSB website  (PDF format)

Factual Report http://www.ntsb.gov/aviationquery/GenPDF.aspx?id=ATL97FA057&rpt=fa
Probable Cause  Report http://www.ntsb.gov/aviationquery/GenPDF.aspx?id=ATL97FA057&rpt=fi

Griffin – Spalding County Aiport

The aircraft was using runway 14,  which runs diagonally from top left to bottom right of the map. From the descriptions and statements in the NTSB report, the crew apparently decided to try and abort the take-off  when the number 1 (port outer) engine failed.

The pilot who flew the aircraft two days previously (with the co-pilot who was killed on this night) knew the procedure for an engine failure on take-off and reported that a braking manoeuvre in this event was not part of the aircraft operations manual.  The previous pilot and co-pilot agreed that the most dangerous element of the flight was the take-off from Griffin-Spalding County. For whatever reason the crew on the 4th April flight attempted to abort the take-off. The toxicology report on the co-pilot indicated a level of a substance found in over-the counter antihistamines in the bloodstream very much in excess of the normal dose, which may have lead to his inability to react appropriately.  The fact was noted in the NTSB’s probable cause report.

The Carvair then skidded off the end of the runway, crossed the road which runs past the end of the runway and ended up crashing into the abandoned supermarket.  If you look closely at the map , there is a small shopping centre on the opposite side of Zebulon Road, and on zooming in,  you can see that the retail unit on the north side of the shopping centre has been demolished, leaving an empty pad.  The Google image was taken in 2008, 1o years after the crash.

It’s a very sad story and any loss of life is regrettable.  Looking at the map it is fortunate that the Carvair did not swerve further on the aborted take-off run since there is clearly a residential area to the east of the airfield.  That the supermarket was empty and abandoned also prevented further loss of life that night.

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5 thoughts on “Carvair N83FA Crash: Griffin, Georgia, April 1997

  1. Before speculating on what happened on the early morning of April 4, 1997 which resulted in the death of (Captain Larry Whittington) and (Copilot Ralph Josey), you may want to look at the performance charts for the modified C-54ADC/ATL98 Carvair. I am the son of Captain Larry Whittington and I spent more than 8 years investigating what happened. That is direct causes and indirect causes.

    First it must be noted the Griffin Spalding Airport had numerous obstructions in the approach/departure FAR Part 77 slope. The airport was littered with buildings in the Clear Zone and the airport should have been closed or brought up to FAA Advisory Circular Airport Design standards set forth in 150/5300. The FAA and residents who lived near or around the airport had predicted a crash would occur and the crash would involve the accident aircraft N83FA. These predictions were made years prior to the fatal crash.

    The number 1 engine is the worst engine to fail on the carvair which per the flight manual can cause severe yaw and far more than a mere 25% loss of power. The fact of the matter is that at the point the engine failed the pilots could not fly and could not successfully abort takeoff. The FAA who approved operation of this aircraft at 6A2 (Griffin Spalding) were aware that this was a disaster waiting to happen.

    Despite the above facts the FAA did not require any restricted takeoff weights on N83FA even though it took 5500 feet to takeoff or abort at the takeoff weights routinely utilized. On the accident flight the aircraft weighed approximately 56000 pounds. The landing chart shows that the required runway to safely stop at 56000 pounds is 1800 feet.

    There is no accelerate stop/accelerate go charts contained in the Carvair Flight Manual. Actual testing was never done to obtain these figures when the C54A/DC was converted to a Carvair. Several of the DC-4 performance charts were reused even though the Carvair was 10 feet longer and was nose heavy and was a ground loving pig on takeoff. At the point the failed engine manifested itself approximately 3200 feet the pilots were doomed. The Carvair can barely climb on three engines when the number 1 engine is involved (on takeoff) and certainly did not have the ability to lift off in the 500 remaining feet of runway which existed. There were apartment buildings and telephone poles and other obstructions just a few hundred feet from the end of the runway.

    The pilots did an amazing job on the night of 4/4/97 and paid dearly with their lives.

    Respectfully,

    Kris Whittington

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    • Thanks for your comment and clarification. I intend no disrespect to your father Capt. Whittington or Copilot Larry Josey. As you may have read my interest was piqued partly because of the almost nomadic history of the individual airframe, which was one of he most heavily-used C-54 – Carvair conversions. I note your comments and thank you once again.

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    • I did not take your post as disrespectful. I did however seek to separate fact from fiction. The scenario which was told to the FAA and NTSB after the accident was that this was a matter of pilot error because the takeoff should have continued once the number 1 engine failed. The fact is that per numerous witnesses who routinely flew the accident aircraft or lived near the airport, N83FA always used every bit of the runway to lift off (on 4 engines).

      There is a 2014 article written by a female pilot who trained at Griffin once yearly for 25 years. The pilot stated she flew in the accident aircraft and it took all the runway at 6A2 to takeoff. This does not square with the McSwiggans’ or pilot Don Boyd’s claim that the takeoff roll should have been continued. The City building inspector Mr. Roy McCoy told me he watched the aircraft takeoff at least 25 times and each and every time it took off he did not think it would make it without hitting the runway lights at the end of the runway.

      If the aircraft used all the runway to takeoff on 4 engines it is quite fictional to claim that the aircraft could somehow suffer a engine failure of the most critical engine at the most critical time and somehow the aircraft could loft into flight in 500 feet of remaining runway. The obstructions at the end of the runway made this impossible. I have flown the carvair on flight simulator many times at 6A2 and while not exact it is clear that when power is lost on number 1 the initial rate of climb is non existent on a runway that is 3700 feet

      Pilots taking off at midnight on a poorly lit runway sitting 24 feet off the ground would have to recognize the engine failure, apply 5 degrees right rudder and other actions all in the blink of an eye traveling at nearly 100 miles per hour. Then the plane would have to climb 20 feet off the ground in 4 seconds which it plainly could not have done.

      The reason a pilot would not attempt to feather an engine in a rejected takeoff is that they wanted to create all the drag they could (to stop the aircraft). The skid marks indicate the pilots were trying to stop the aircraft. Also there were reports the engine was on fire at the time it failed (per airport employee). I personally examined the accident site many times and took photos and videos and it is clear the aircraft was close to stopping at the time the aircraft hit the building.

      My purpose is publishing data about the accident is to set the record straight. On the night of the accident the aircraft came 15 feet from hitting an apartment building and there was a bar filled with people next to the vacant building the aircraft collided with.

      The FAA should have but did not prevent this accident. The FAA had prior knowledge this was an accident waiting to happen The FAA and the airport lost the airport approval letter for the 400 foot runway extension, but it was noted the runway extension was “Conditionally Approved” . The Airport approval letter for 6A2 obviously contained operating restrictions for the accident aircraft (as restricted takeoff weights for N83FA were mentioned in the proposal to extend the runway. A balanced filed study for N83FA was supposed to be done as well prior to the Conditional Approval but the study either was never done or lost.

      Pilot Larry Whittington and copilot Ralph Josey are hero’s and the public should know the truth about the dangerous conditions that existed on April 4, 1997. The obstructions in the FAA mandated Clear Zone are for protection of people or property on the ground. This (should include pilots in an aborted takeoff or short landing). The dangerous conditions also cost another pilot his life. The second accident killed a pilot flying a Beech Baron, who hit a building on the other end of the runway several years after the crash of N83FA.

      In 1995 the runway at 6A2 was purportedly lengthened by from 3300 to 3700 feet but in reality none of the obstructions were removed thus no actual benefit was derived from this purported 400 foot expansion of the runway. In fact all this really did was erroneously allow displaced thresholds to be counted as additional takeoff runway.

      Apparently, Spalding County and the City of Griffin are finally going to fix or improve the Clear Zone. Better late than never!

      Respectfully,

      Kris Whittington

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      • I agree with you on all of the above! I was on duty at ACJ that fateful night waiting on the DC-4 to arrive. I was prepared to fuel it and help load the bumpers with the forklift. I had done this on many nights. I will never forget that sinking feeling in my gut when I heard about the crash that night. My condolences to all that were involved. God bless!!

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  2. My family and I moved to Griffin Georgia July of 1996 a couple months before my 8th birthday and we had found a townhouse in the Southridge circle next to where the closed market once was. I remember the sound of the planes taking off all hours of the day and night. It didn’t really bother me too much because I had just gotten over one of my biggest fears “flying” because when we had moved we flew and it was my first time.
    Something that people don’t realise is the impact that it made on people not just personally related to the piolets but the people that heard and saw what happened that night, living only a stone’s throw from the crash site, literally.

    April 4th, 1997: I was still awake that night, and I had my blind on my window still pulled up from the day before. My bedroom was on the second floor of the apartment facing what was about to happen. I sat there on the edge of my bed playing a video game on my Sega Genisis, when out of nowhere I heard something odd, like this roar, and then the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. The flames were so huge that it looked like the apartment itself was on fire partly because we were on the side of Southridge that was in danger of catching on fire. When the fire trucks showed up they blocked people’s vehicles in and no one could get out, we were stuck there in the fire and smoke. The landlord to the apartments only lived catty-cornered from us but when she was asked where the fire hydrants were she couldn’t even talk, she was in shock. Luckily I spent most of my days after school riding my bike through the neighbourhood so I knew exactly where they were, and to this very day, I still do. I ran up to a group of firefighters and told them where they could be found, but that’s when they asked my mother if I could show them. I remember running to the opposite side of Southridge Circle with my mother to get away from the smoke, and falling to my knees because of the panic attack I was having. It was almost dawn before our area was evacuated. I have been through a lot in my years of life, but that night was by far one of the scariest I have lived so far.

    I think it was about a week after the crash that a group of people decided to have a meeting to talk about what had happened, and my father wanted to go so we did. At that time nothing much was figured out other than they knew how the plane crashed and how many was deceased.

    I don’t think it was even a month after the crash before my family had decided to move back to Arkansas, and we didn’t fly this time. I won’t ever again. To date, I suffer from PTSD related to the crash that night.

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