Aircraft Accident Pilot Mentions Vision Concerns: New information regarding the 10-hour ordeal can be gleaned from recordings of the pilot and his passenger’s 911 calls, which were made shortly after the plane crashed on Sunday.
The Pilot of the Crashed Plane Recalls Problems with Sight
From the cockpit, Patrick Merkle believed his aircraft had ended up 60 to 100 feet above the ground, pinned on a power line at a 45-degree angle. Twenty minutes after the disaster, with no ladder on-site or rescuers coming up, he and his companion debated evacuating the plane and leaping onto the tower.
“I simply lifted the panel that provides us enough clearance to get out,” Merkle, 66, calmly informed the 911 dispatcher. “I think it’s safer outside.”
His single-engine plane became entangled in power lines in Montgomery County at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, and he worried that the aircraft might get detached from the tower. The jet already was swaying with the wind, he added, as he called for rescue. He and his companion, Janet Williams, were feeling chilled. His nose was bleeding. She maybe suffered a rib fracture. Both had head injuries.
“I’m really scared about our predicament and the likelihood that we may fall out of this tower,” Merkle told dispatcher Laurel Manion, continuing to detail their location and ailments. “That gap is unsurvivable.” Recordings of the 911 call Merkle and Williams made immediately after they crashed Sunday give additional details of the hours-long experience and what could have weighed into the plane’s collapse into Pepco transmission lines. The collision occurred approximately a mile from their goal at the Montgomery County Airpark in the Gaithersburg region.
Merkle, contacted by phone Tuesday, said it was “absolutely a miracle” that he and Williams, 65, were alive. “How many people sit 150 feet from the earth and worry about surviving?” he said. (Maryland State Police first reported ages different from Merkle and Williams’ 911 call.)
Merkle left the hospital Monday. Merkle expected Williams’ release Tuesday. Crash reason unknown. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is conducting the inquiry, said the aircraft will be transported Tuesday for study. Tuesday, agency spokesperson Sarah Sulick said the accident update might take weeks. Misty and wet weather in Washington at the time of the collision was unclear.
Merkle declined to comment Tuesday, citing the NTSB inquiry. However, the 911 tapes suggest what went wrong. “What occurred before the crash? Was its visibility? Manion requested the pilot to calm them. “Totally visible,” he said. “We sought the airport. I plummeted to the minimum altitude and evidently went lower than I should have.”
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In the foggy twilight darkness, emergency responders responding to 911 calls—including Merkle’s from the pilot’s seat—encountered a difficult sight. After hitting two power-line towers, the jet was caught in high-voltage wires. The plane was too high for a ladder, and the wind was increasing.
They were apprehensive about the plane. Williams begged for speed one hour after the incident. “I’m worried. Wind moves the aircraft. So they need to start doing whatever it is.” Merkle is apprehensive about rescuers’ arrival: “It seems like it’s going to be quite a while before they get up here.”
Manion said 911 dispatchers rescuers were planning. She promised to stay on the line until help arrived. She cautioned them of electricity wires as they considered climbing the tower. She feared “you’re going to get electrocuted.” She told them to “stay in the plane, keep motionless” until emergency services “worked on a strategy.”
In an interview, Manion, 22, claimed she took normal calls after her shift started at 3 p.m. A ground witness reported a jet accident. “I took up the phone again and it was the pilot,” Manion recalled. She spoke to them for 112 minutes until their mobile battery died.
She asked firefighters for help when Merkle and Williams wanted to leave and discovered the tower was electrified. Manion told Merkle and Williams the plane was safest. The pair told Manion that the tower had no place to stand if they tried to rescue themselves.
Before rescuing, crews stabilized the aircraft on the tower. Lines were cut by utility crews. Seven hours later, two boom crane trucks lifted the pair out and lowered the plane at 3:30 a.m. Monday—10 hours after the crash.
Manion said they were calm. “I don’t know how calm I would have been in their shoes. That was what I was thinking about while reassuring them.”
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