A fire in the engine may be to blame for a plane crash that probably killed a high-profile University of Florida athletic supporter, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported Sept. 22. Investigators have not officially confirmed the names of victims of the Piper Turbo Saratoga’s crash over the Everglades Sept. 20. However, circumstances have lead friends and family to believe that the four bodies recovered from near the crash are the bodies of Gators booster Bruce Barber; his wife, Karen Barber; their 14-year-old son, Payton Barber; and family friend Phillip Marsh. (The Barbers also had a daughter, ten-year-old Chloe, who stayed behind in Sea Lakes Ranch.) The four left Gainesville after a Florida-Tennessee football game, but never made their scheduled landing at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash and will likely take months to make a full report. But Miguel Gerov, who co-owned the airplane, told the Sun-Sentinel that an investigator told him about a radio distress call from the plane. According to Gerov’s report, Bruce Barber radioed to air traffic controllers that smoke was filling his cabin, possibly due to an engine fire. Barber then put the plane into a controlled dive in an attempt to put out the fire, Gerov said, a standard emergency measure. After the dive, he said the plane leveled off and proceeded for 15 more minutes before the crash. Gerov told the newspaper he believed Barber was trying to get to an airport or a stretch of highway where he could land, but may have been incapacitated by the smoke.
Gerov told the newspaper that the plane had had a full maintenance check seven months ago and showed no signs of trouble; he suggested that engine failure may have started the fire. As a Boca Raton aviation accident lawyer, I am interested to see whether the NTSB’s full report identifies equipment failure as the cause of this crash. As a rule, statistics on general aviation (non-commercial carriers) accidents show that human error is most often responsible for accidents. In fact, a 2005 report said mistakes by personnel were factors in a staggering 91% of all aviation accidents, while environmental factors (such as weather) were factors in 39% and equipment problems were factors in 25% of incidents. Human error, such as bad maintenance or improper use of equipment, may be responsible for some equipment failure -- but aviation equipment can certainly fail on its own, and when it does, the results can be tragic.