The airplane that crashed after takeoff from Scottsdale Airport earlier this month was equipped with six seats but appears to have struggled to gain altitude on departure, federal investigators determined in a preliminary crash report published Thursday.
Using surveillance video from the airport and a traffic camera nearby, National Transportation Safety Board investigators pieced together the plane’s final moments before the 8:48 p.m. crash April 9.
The plane’s wings were "rocking during and shortly after" takeoff from Runway 3. As the plane went into a left-banking turn, the angle increased and the plane started to lose altitude, investigators wrote.
"The wings became nearly vertical, and the view of the airplane was lost behind a berm," they wrote. "Seconds later, the camera caught a fireball when the airplane impacted terrain."
Witnesses did not hear any unusual sounds or see the plane put off any unusual smoke during takeoff. One witness did, however, say the plane was traveling lower than most other aircraft that depart before it crashed onto TPC Scottsdale, killing all six people onboard.
Who was flying the plane?
The victims were identified as James Pedroza, 28; Mariah Coogan, 23; Erik Valente, 32; Anand Kamlesh Patel, 28; Helena Lagos, 22; and Iris Carolina Rodriguez Garcia, 23.
Scottsdale police identified those killed but initially said Valente was 26.
Investigators said a certified airline transport pilot — Valente — and student pilot — Pedroza — were in the front of the plane, although they did not specify who was supposed to have been in control at the time of the crash. Pedroza was in the front left seat, and Valente was in the front right.
Two women sat in the back two seats, and a man and a woman occupied the middle two seats.
Earlier that evening, Valente flew the plane to Scottsdale from Las Vegas to pick up the passengers and return them to Nevada. It was his first flight in the airplane, and it remains unclear how familiar he was with its operation.
The report stops short of saying what caused the crash.
What caused the crash?
But three factors — all related to loading — could have contributed to the small Piper PA-24 Comanche crashing less than a mile away, experts told The Republic previously.
Six adults, fuel and, likely, luggage could have skewed the center of gravity, according to Brent Bowen, a professor in the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott. Based on the details released so far, the loaded weight and balance of the aircraft appeared to have exceeded capacity.
It’s widely known among aviators that planes have two more seats than they can really use.
Additionally, a calculation — density altitude — to determine performance demands based on temperature and atmospheric conditions could have been incorrect, he said.
“A disaster could occur by miscalculating any of those components,” Bowen said previously, speaking generally about aircraft incidents and the ability of the Piper PA-24.
Details released in Thursday’s report bolstered that initial assessment, he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board is in the process of meticulously evaluating the wreckage, which has been transported to a secure facility in the Valley.
The plane came to a rest on the golf course about one-quarter of a mile from the end of the departure runway. The main cabin was mostly burned, and parts of the wings were located apart from the fuselage.
The crash scene should be revealing, said Bill Waldock, a professor of safety science who specializes in aircraft accident investigation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
MORE ON SCOTTSDALE PLANE CRASH:
With a controlled crash, such as one caused by engine failure or a mechanical issue, a plane will leave a lengthy impact slide as the pilot tries to ease the aircraft to the ground.
That doesn’t appear to be what happened April 9. The scene was contained to a relatively small area of TPC Scottsdale. Based on local television footage, the smoldering wreckage was contained, and the debris field was particularly small.
Thursday’s preliminary report likely will be the last official update on the crash until the final report is released sometime in mid-2019.