Pilot Seemingly Unbuckled Seatbelt Before Falling from Experimental Plane and Hitting Tail, Causing Fatal Crash

“One [witness] heard the pilot impact the airplane’s tail and another observed the pilot impact, then ‘spiral’ off, the airplane’s tail," said the NTSB report

The cause of the fatal "experimental amateur-built" plane crash in Pennsylvania in 2022 was the result of the pilot deciding to remove his seatbelt to exit the plane during the flight — only to hit the tail of the aircraft, resulting in its loss of control, said authorities.

In a final report published on April 10 and shared with PEOPLE, the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) analyzed the Oct. 29, 2022, accident that resulted in the deaths of the pilot and pilot-rated passenger as their Bearhawk Patrol plane crashed near Hanover Township.

Per The Associated Press, citing the Luzerne County coroner’s office, the two fatalities from the plane were Michael Bowen, 59, and Ronald Snyder, 76. Snyder piloted the aircraft, PennLive reported. Their names were mentioned in the NTSB report.

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According to the NTSB report, the two were flying from Farmers Pride Airport in Lebanon County to the Hazleton Regional Airport in Hazleton and then to the Wilkes-Barre Wyoming Valley Airport in Wilkes-Barre.

At the Wilkes-Barre Wyoming Valley Airport, per the report, the pilot told his friend that the airplane had a rigging issue that caused it to “ ‘kick’ laterally during turns.” The pilot asked the friend to fly the plane to see what he thought.

The friend flew the plane for 10 minutes and reported “odd yawing” moments during the turns. The pilot told the friend he would address the issue “in the winter.”

The report said that after lunch, the two were flying back to the Farmers Pride Airport when the plane leveled off several minutes after departure, according to flight track information.

Per witnesses, the plane “ ‘rolled’ then ‘bucked’ as its nose ‘dipped down initially,’ then pitched up ‘quickly.' Several witnesses reported seeing the pilot out of the airplane at this time.”

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“One heard the pilot impact the airplane’s tail,” the report continued, “and another observed the pilot impact, then ‘spiral’ off, the airplane’s tail. The witnesses then observed the pilot and airplane descend to the ground.”

The report added that the pilot was seen with his seat belt and shoulder harness buckled before the flight, and that the seat belt and harness were found intact and unlatched, suggesting that he “intentionally unbuckled his seatbelt during the short flight.” With his concerns about the yawing during turns, the pilot at the time may have wanted to check out the problem.

“It is possible that either the pilot fell out of the airplane while attempting to observe the tail section, or that the pilot displaced a flight control while attempting to observe the tail, which then caused an abrupt pitching moment that ejected him from the airplane,” per the report – adding that the pilot’s impact on the tail resulted in a loss of control of the plane that the pilot-rated passenger would have not been able to recover.

An examination of the plane’s engine after the accident revealed “no evidence of any preimpact mechanical malfunctions or failures that would have precluded normal operation,” said the finding.

A post-accident analysis of the airframe was consistent with witness statements that the pilot impacted the aircraft’s tail during the flight, per the findings.

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“The pilot’s decision to unlatch his seatbelt during flight, which allowed him to exit the airplane and impact the tail, resulting in a loss of control and impact with terrain,” said the NTSB in its report.

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The NTSB report also noted that based on toxicology reports, the pilot had the antidepressant drug citalopram in his blood and urine. Witnesses said that the pilot functioned well, and the report concluded that the presence of citalopram was not a factor in the accident.

The toxicology results also indicated the pilot took the high cholesterol medication atorvastatin and the high blood pressure medication terazosin. The report also concluded those medications were not a factor in the crash.

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