A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board confirms the plane that crashed in downtown Spokane last month was filled with jet fuel before taking off.
The plane was a single-engine Piper Malibu Mirage, a model sold with a piston-powered engine that runs on aviation gas, according to the manufacturer’s website.
Pilot Michael Clements crashed Feb. 22 north of East Sprague Avenue at North Erie Street, near the Hamilton Street bridge over the Spokane River. He died from his injuries on Feb. 24 at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.
The plane lost power while climbing after takeoff and was destroyed after hitting a railroad track during the attempted emergency landing, the report said.
The NTSB report said Clements’ plane was refueled with 52 gallons of jet fuel at Western Aviation, the fuel concessionaire for Felts Field, prior to takeoff. The report does not indicate who fueled the plane.
Clements was from Stony Plain, Alberta, and stopped at Felts Field en route to Stockton, California.
Piper makes another plane, the Malibu Meridian, which runs on jet fuel and looks similar to the Mirage, though the propellers are different.
“From 100 yards away, an ordinary person would probably not pick up on the difference. A trained technician on the line servicing airplanes should know the difference,” said Mark Pierce, a commercial aviation instructor and attorney.
Pierce is representing the family of a man killed in a plane crash in New Mexico last August in a wrongful death lawsuit against the fixed-base operator at Las Cruces International Airport. The plane, which was transporting a patient for cancer treatment, crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all four people on board.
A preliminary NTSB report said a line technician had mistakenly filled the plane with jet fuel instead of aviation gas.
Phillips 66, a Houston-based energy company, is the fuel provider at Felts Field and also co-owned the fuel truck allegedly used to fuel the Las Cruces plane.
Pilots conduct preflight safety checks before takeoff, which are supposed to catch problems like misfueling. The most common method is checking fuel color by taking a small sample using a cup with a needle inserted under the wing.
Pure jet fuel is clear or straw-colored, while aviation gas is blue. But a mixture of the two is usually still blue, Pierce said, which can fool pilots.
“A piston pilot who believes he’s getting regular aviation fuel might be fooled into thinking it’s pure when in fact it’s contaminated with jet fuel,” Pierce said.
To avoid fueling errors, it’s common for jet fuel pumps to have nozzles that won’t fit into the tanks of piston-engine planes. Western Aviation has not returned calls asking whether those nozzles are in use at Felts Field.
A Phillips 66 spokesman declined to answer questions about whether the company uses different nozzles to distinguish fuel types, citing pending litigation.
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