A Greenhill & Co. banker’s plane encountered icing and the pilot sought to climb to a higher altitude shortly before the aircraft crashed, killing all five people on board, U.S. investigators said.
The plane, owned by Jeffrey F. Buckalew, was cleared by air traffic controllers to ascend to 20,000 feet (6,100 meters), the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report today. The pilot reported being in icing conditions at 17,000 feet and reached 17,900 before starting to descend, the NTSB said.
Ice can be deadly because it robs planes of the lift needed to stay airborne, said Bill Waldock, professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. The 15-minute duration of the Dec. 20 flight over New Jersey suggests “some severe and extreme icing,” he said.
“The actual severity of the icing will be a question,” Waldock said in an interview today. “In severe to extreme icing, the ice builds up so fast the deicing equipment can’t get rid of it.”
Investigators don’t know whether the deicing system on Buckalew’s single-engine Socata TBM 700 turboprop was activated before the crash, the NTSB said in a Dec. 21 briefing.
An operations manual for the TBM 700 advises pilots who fly into such hazards to “immediately request priority handling from air traffic control to exit the severe icing conditions in order to avoid extended exposure to flight conditions more severe than those for which the aircraft has been certified.”
Greenhill has said Buckalew, 45, was an experienced pilot. The NTSB hasn’t identified who was at the controls beyond saying that the pilot had 1,400 flight hours as of his last medical certificate application in July.
Buckalew, his wife, Corinne; their two children, Jackson, 11, and Meriwether, 6; and Greenhill banker Rakesh Chawla died when the plane plunged into a highway median about a mile from Morristown, New Jersey, after taking off from nearby Teterboro en route to Atlanta. Today’s preliminary NTSB report gave the facts of the crash without speculating on the cause.
Part of the plane’s right wing and tail were found about a quarter-mile southwest of the fuselage, the safety board said. That may indicate the pilot was able to re-exert some control before the TBM 700 hit the ground, Waldock said.
“The way he impacted indicates he may have regained some partial control, but apparently overstressed the airplane and tore the wing off in the process,” he said.
The last annual inspection for the TBM 700 was in July, according to the safety board. Manufactured in 2005, it had logged 724.6 hours of flight time as of Nov. 18, the NTSB said.
Buckalew and Chawla, 36, were managing directors at Greenhill, a New York-based investment banking firm that provides financial advice on mergers, acquisitions and restructurings.
Buckalew joined Greenhill in 1996 as one of its first associates and worked his way up the ranks in mergers and acquisitions in a variety of industries. He advised clients including VF Corp., Roche Holding AG, Emerson Electric Co. and Delta Air Lines Inc.
Chawla came to Greenhill in 2003 after working at the Blackstone Group. A financial-services specialist, he was involved in Greenhill’s work for the U.S. Treasury in managing its investment in American International Group Inc.