CAHOKIA, Ill. -- A mysterious plane crash that killed two men near Belleville, Ill., last year was caused by pilot error during challenging weather, according to a new report released by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The single-engine Piper Malibu Mirage plunged into a house along a grass airstrip the night of Feb. 21, 2010, as it attempted a second approach to St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, about five miles away. Both occupants, veteran pilots Donald Estell, 65, of Clayton, and Robert Clarkson, 77, of Belleville, were killed.
The crash initially flummoxed investigators. There was no indication of distress or lack of fuel. Officials said pieces of the plane's wings were found with the wreckage and not scattered away from the crash site, indicating the plane did not come apart before impact. Both pilots had experience in treacherous conditions, even though the weather that night was reported as moderate.
The National Weather Service listed conditions for the Cahokia airport at the time as light rain and fog, calm wind, visibility of 1.5 miles and a ceiling of 400 to 600 feet. It said the temperature below 5,000 feet was above freezing.
Estell, said to be at the controls, was not new to difficult conditions. In 1987, icy weather forced him to radio a Kansas airport for an emergency landing, but instead he landed his single-engine Piper Aero in a wheat field. His wife and children were on board that day; no one was injured.
The report of the 2010 accident, released June 27, said the full investigation "revealed no evidence of mechanical malfunction or failure."
Officials believe the pilot attempted an instrument landing approach, meaning he was relying on cockpit gauges and not what he could see outside.
"The airplane's turning ground track and the challenging visibility conditions were conducive to the onset of pilot spatial disorientation," the report stated. The probable cause for the accident is listed as "spatial disorientation and subsequent failure to maintain airplane control during the instrument approach."
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