NTSB determines doomed Piper PA-20 took off from DC area Monday afternoon, hitting stormy weather

Shenandoah plane crash Buck Hollow

The Piper PA-20 airplane crashed sometime Monday into the thick forest canopy of Buck Hollow, seen here from Skyline Drive late Thursday with Sperryville in the distance.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) told the Rappahannock News on Friday morning that the crash of a small plane just west of Sperryville — its wreckage and deceased pilot not stumbled up by hikers of the Buck Hollow Trail until late Wednesday morning — occurred at 7 p.m. Monday evening, Aug. 31.

NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson provided this newspaper with following timeline of the small plane’s flight path based on its ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) technology — where an aircraft’s position is determined via satellite navigation, sending out a “ping” every second:

• The Piper PA-20 took off from “Maryland Airport” at Indian Head in Charles County, Md., just south of the nation’s capital, late Monday afternoon “heading westbound” with only the pilot aboard.

• The still-unidentified pilot filed “no flight plan,” thus his destination remains unknown as of late Friday morning.

• The pilot was flying under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), when weather conditions are supposed to be clear enough to allow the pilot to see where the aircraft is going.

• Weather at the time of the crash was “overcast and rainy.”

• The “very precise” radar track route of the plane ends at approximately 7 p.m. when the Piper went down into a thick canopy of trees within the Rappahannock County portion of Shenandoah National Park, just over Buck Hollow Ridge west of Sperryville.

— The location of the crash is “in a ravine” less than a mile below Skyline Drive (the National Park Service would not allow a reporter for the Rappahannock News access to the crash site).

— The plane upon impact was “highly fragmented.”

— There was “no post-crash fire.”

Knudson said the NTSB will issue a preliminary report on the crash within a few weeks, with detailed information including a likely cause of the crash in 12 to 24 months.

On Thursday, Shenandoah National Park officials refused to grant the news media access to the crash site. 

“It’s the scene of an investigation and they don't want anyone to enter the area while the investigation is going on,” park spokeswoman Sally Hurlbert explained.

“The body of an adult male was found in the wreckage,” the park said in a short news release Thursday morning.

On Wednesday at 11:14 a.m., according to the release, the Shenandoah National Park Communications Center received a report that the wreckage of a Piper PA-20 plane had been discovered approximately three-quarters of a mile down the Buck Hollow Trail from Skyline Drive.

The popular Buck Hollow Trail, including the parking areas on Highway 211 west of Sperryville, the Meadow Springs parking area on Skyline Drive at mile 33.5, and the Buck Ridge Trail remain closed until further notice while the investigation continues and the wreckage is removed from the scene.  

This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.

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