A final report on the investigation of a plane crash that killed the 80-year-old pilot and sole occupant in St. Simons Island, Georgia, last May was inconclusive but raises some questions about the pilot’s physical condition.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators found that Roger Crane of Bluffton, South Carolina, lost control of the plane in the final minutes of a cross country flight.

According to the NTSB’s final report, Mr. Crane was making a gradual descent on his approach to McKinnon St. Simons Island Airport on May 25, 2019, when the Cessna TR182 dropped 400 feet in four seconds and disappeared from radar.

The airplane slammed into the ground at a high speed in a wooded area about five miles from the airport.

No evidence of mechanical malfunction

The NTSB said evidence at the plane crash site indicated the plane was in a near-vertical descent when it collided with the ground. One witness who saw the plane go down said in a 911 call that “It was pretty much straight down with high RPMs,” according to Jacksonville, Florida’s News4Jax.

The report noted that no “preimpact mechanical malfunctions” that could have disrupted the normal operation of the aircraft were found.

The NTSB also notes that Mr. Crane, who held a commercial pilot’s license, had high blood pressure and high cholesterol. While those conditions wouldn’t impair his ability to fly, they could have led to a medical emergency that caused him to lose control of the plane.

Investigators couldn’t say definitively whether a heart attack or other health crisis was a factor in the plane crash because Mr. Crane’s body was too badly damaged in the collision.

Pilot age and safety

News4Jax aviation expert Ed Booth raised some questions about the effects of age and physical fitness on flying. While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) long ago set a maximum age of 65 to fly passengers commercially, rules for getting and keeping a pilot’s license are considerably more lax than they are for commercial truck drivers.

Sixteen years ago, the FAA relaxed its rules for pilots of private planes, making it easier to obtain and hold a pilot’s license. Pilots still must pass regular flight tests, but they need only a driver’s license as proof of good health in order to fly.

Age of course is often accompanied by a certain level of cognitive decline and slower motor skills and reflexes – all of which could conceivably affect a pilot’s ability to quickly process and respond to an air emergency. According to News4Jax, the Associated Press analyzed five years of plane crash records and found that pilots in older age groups were significantly more likely to be involved in a plane crash.

With age also comes experience, and decades of flight can make many older pilots better and safer than younger pilots with less experience. Still, even then age can become a factor in a critical situation or medical emergency.

Mr. Booth told News4Jax that older pilots can generally afford more complex planes that may stretch beyond their abilities to fly. He told News4Jax that Mr. Crane’s Cessna was a “complex airplane.”

“It’s a high-performance airplane that has to be treated with a little more care and caution,” Mr. Booth said, adding that age makes a pilot more predisposed to making potentially deadly mistakes. This could be especially critical if the pilot isn’t thoroughly familiar with an airplane’s controls and the way the aircraft responds to the pilot’s input.

Aviation litigation

Beasley Allen lawyer Mike Andrews focuses much of his practice on aviation litigation and currently represents families of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 victims involving the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. In addition to his Ethiopian Airlines crash clients, Mike has represented people seriously injured in a variety of aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes.

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