Watch CBS News

Pilot was below minimum altitude long before crash into Maryland power lines, NTSB reports

NTSB release preliminary report into Gaithersburg Plane Crash
NTSB release preliminary report into Gaithersburg Plane Crash 02:08

BALTIMORE -- The pilot who crashed into powerlines in Gaithersburg last week was below minimum altitude long before the collision, according to a newly released preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board. 

The single-engine Mooney M20J crashed into wires at Rothbury Drive and Goshen Road near Montgomery County Airpark on Nov. 27, causing a widespread power outage in the area.

The pilot and passenger were trapped in the suspended plane for seven hours before finally being safely rescued. They were identified as pilot Patrick Merkle, 65, of Washington, D.C. and passenger Jan Williams, 66, of Louisiana.

"We removed the lady first and he was trying to come out right behind her and I was like, 'just stay where you're at,'" Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Lt. John Lann said.

The weather at the time of the crash was described as overcast with low visibility, which forced Merkle to rely on instruments during the flight, the agency said.   

The report said Merkle was advised by air traffic control on one approach procedure to Montgomery County Airpark, but Merkle asked for his preferred procedure. 

Merkle was cleared to fly to a waypoint over Frederick to begin his approach, but the report said he missed directions from the controller because, he said, he entered the information incorrectly to find the waypoint. 

The NTSB said that around that time, another airplane approaching the airpark requested a diversion to another airport because visibility was "below minimal."

When Merkle reached the Frederick waypoint to begin his approach, he was reportedly 225 feet below minimum altitude. At a waypoint over Germantown, he was 475 feet below the minimum, and at a third waypoint about two miles from the airport, he was 530 feet below the minimum. 

The crash happened just over a mile from the airport about 100 feet above ground level. Merkle had also been flying left of the runway centerline at the time of the crash, according to a flight path provided by the NTSB. 

Archived recordings revealed air traffic control urgently warned the Merkle he was flying too low before the crash, according to a CNN report

The crash happened around 5 p.m., and the two were safely rescued from the plane shortly after midnight. Crews then lowered the plane from the electrical tower. 

"It was too low from what I heard, from where it should have been in the approach," Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said. "That to me is a problem so I want to know how it got to that point."

Merkle and Williams were seriously injured, but Merkle was able to call 911.   

"I got down a little lower than I should have… I thought I was closer to the airport than I was…We could see the ground, but we couldn't see in front," Merkle reportedly told the 911 dispatcher. 

The NTSB said Merkle told local media he was concerned about his altimeter working correctly, but no fault was found in the plane's instruments after an inspection of the plane's altimeter and altitude-reporting equipment.   

Merkle's licensing and plane inspections were all up to date, the report said. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.