TAMPA — Dr. Daniel P. Greenwald knew what to do in a mid-air emergency. The well-known Tampa plastic surgeon had been flying since he was a teen and had trained countless pilots as a part-time flight instructor.
But last week, Greenwald found himself in a mid-air crisis he couldn’t escape. And now a preliminary investigative report reveals a stunning possible cause of the crash that killed him: The plane he was flying had been filled with the wrong type of fuel.
A worker at the Kokomo Municipal Airport in Indiana put 163 gallons of jet fuel in the Piper Aerostar 602P, according to a report the National Transportation Safety Board released Thursday. The Aerostar is a propeller plane with twin engines designed to run on standard, low-lead aviation gasoline.
The report does not blame the apparent fuel mix-up for the crash. A determination on the cause will be included, if possible, in a final report that typically takes several months to complete.
But Robert Losurdo, founder and CEO of In Flight Review, a Tampa-based flight instruction company that Greenwald worked for, says he already is convinced.
“Guaranteed, 100 percent," Losurdo said. “If he had regular fuel, he’d be home in Tampa.”
Greenwald left Tampa’s Peter O. Knight airport in the Aerostar about 6:45 a.m. Saturday and arrived at Kokomo Municipal about 10:27 a.m., the report says. Greenwald went to Kokomo that day to train a pilot in a different model of Piper plane, a Cheyenne.
An employee at the Kokomo facility later told investigators that as Greenwald was approaching the airport in the Aerostar, the employee asked him if he wanted jet fuel, and Greenwald said “yes.” The employee, who is not named in the report, told investigators he asked because the Aerostar looked like a jet airplane, according to the report.
When Greenwald arrived, the employee parked the jet fuel truck in front of the Aerostar while Greenwald was still inside. The truck was marked with “JET A” on the left, right and rear sides.
“The employee said that he asked the pilot again if he wanted jet fuel, and the pilot said, ‘yes,’ ” the report says.
Jet fuel nozzles are shaped differently from nozzles for standard aviation fuel but the employee told investigators he was able to fill the Aerostar by positioning the nozzle at certain angles. The employee said he initially spilled about a gallon of fuel during refueling and “adjusted his technique so subsequent fuel spillage was minimal,” the report says.
Greenwald completed the training with the student pilot in the Cheyenne and they returned to the Aerostar about 4:20 p.m. The student pilot told investigators Greenwald visually checked the Aerostar’s fuel tanks and gave the student pilot a thumbs-up sign. The student pilot said he heard the engines start up and they sounded normal. The airport employee who filled the plane described the engine sound as “typical.”
Another witness told investigators she saw the Piper flying low and make a sharp left turn. The left wing “dipped low” and the witness lost sight of the plane until she came upon the wreckage in a bean field about four miles from the airport.
An examination of the plane found a clear liquid consistent with jet fuel in the planes’ fuselage tank and in the fuel lines leading to both fuel manifolds. Several of the plane’s spark plugs showed damage “consistent with detonation," the report says.
Beth Copeland, city attorney for Kokomo, sent a statement in response to the Times noting that the NTSB report says the airport employee asked the pilot twice if he wanted jet fuel and both times he answered yes.
“The City does not dispute that," the statement said. "The incident is tragic, and the City offers its sincerest condolences to the pilot’s family.”
Losurdo said there’s no way that Greenwald would have knowingly ordered jet fuel for the Aerostar, a model of plane Greenwald has owned. In addition to his successful private medical practice, Bayshore Plastic Surgery, Greenwald has worked as an instructor for In Flight Review for at least 15 years, Losurdo said.
Perhaps Greenwald misheard the employee, but even if it’s a case of miscommunication, the employee made a mistake, Losurdo said.
“There’s got to be some responsibility there for the fact that linemen have to know the difference between a piston airplane and a jet airplane," he said.
Losurdo suspects there was enough standard gasoline in the plane’s tanks to start the engines and take off, and then at least one engine and probably both failed as they tried to fire the kerosene-based jet-fuel.
The Aerostar is registered to Indiana Paging Network, a company that provides paging services. A message left there Friday was not immediately returned.
Losurdo said Greenwald was training the Cheyenne pilot for another company but apparently also planned to conduct a training session with the Aerostar’s owner. Losurdo said he told Greenwald that he wouldn’t be able to do the training after all because the owner had not submitted the required paperwork to In Flight, so Losurdo suspects Greenwald was on his way back to Tampa at the time of the crash.
Losurdo described Greenwald as a “lovely man” who operated on him after a bout with cancer.
“I cried for two days and have been sick all week,” he said. “I’ve trained thousands of pilots and you’d never expect this to happen.”