A plane crash that killed Tampa surgeon Daniel Greenwald was caused in part by engine failure after an airport worker filled the aircraft with the wrong fuel, a National Transportation Safety Board report confirms.
Contributing to the crash, according to the report, was Greenwald’s failure to supervise the refueling of the Piper Aerostar 602P at the Kokomo Municipal Airport in 2019 and his reaction in the air when the engines failed.
After the engines failed, Greenwald’s “exceedance of the airplane’s critical angle of attack” — the angle of the wings in relation to the relative wind — resulted in an aerodynamic stall and subsequent loss of control, the report states.
The final report, released on Tuesday, makes official what had been suspected since the NTSB released its preliminary findings a week after Greenwald’s death: a stunning error by an airport employee started a chain of events that led to the death of the successful plastic surgeon and flight instructor.
Greenwald, 59, left Tampa’s Peter O. Knight airport in the Aerostar about 6:45 a.m. on Oct. 5, 2019, and arrived at Kokomo Municipal about 10:27 a.m., according to information previously released by the NTSB. Greenwald went to Kokomo that day to train a pilot in a different model of Piper plane, a Cheyenne.
An airport worker told investigators that during Greenwald’s approach to the airport in the Aerostar, the worker asked Greenwald if he wanted jet fuel in the plane and Greenwald replied yes. The employee, who is not named in the report, said the Aerostar looked like a jet plane. In fact, it’s a propeller plane with twin engines designed to run on standard, low-lead aviation gasoline.
When the Aerostar arrived, the employee parked the Jet A fuel truck in front of the plane while Greenwald was still inside. The employee said that he again asked Greenwald if he wanted jet fuel, and the pilot replied, “Yes,” the report states.
Jet fuel nozzles are shaped differently from nozzles for standard aviation fuel but the employee told investigators he was able to fill the Aerostar with 163 gallons by positioning the nozzle at certain angles.
The student pilot said Greenwald visually checked the fuel tanks of the Aerostar to ensure they were fueled up and gave a “thumbs-up.”
Both engines lost power shortly after Greenwald took off from the airport. A witness reported seeing the airplane make a “sharp left turn” to the east and the left wing “dipped low,” the report says.
The plane crashed into a bean field, killing Greenwald, who was the only person on board. The wreckage and crash path indicated the plane entered an accelerated stall before the crash.
Investigators found Jet A jet fuel in the airplane fuel system and spark plug damage that indicated detonation in both engines. The final NTSB report cites the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airplane Flying Handbook, which states that jet fuel “has disastrous consequences when introduced into AVGAS burning reciprocating airplane engines.”
“A reciprocating engine operating on jet fuel may start, run, and power the airplane for a time long enough for the airplane to become airborne only to have the engine fail catastrophically after takeoff,” the handbook says.
The handbook says it’s “imperative” that a pilot visually verify that an airplane has the correct quantity and grade of fuel.
Robert Katz, a veteran commercial pilot and certified flight instructor in Texas who closely tracks plane crashes across the country, reviewed the report and said in an email to the Times that Greenwald likely could have lowered the nose of the plane to manage air speed and keep the wings level to safely glide to a landing in an open space near the airport. Katz noted there are many open fields nearby.
Instead, Greenwald apparently tried to turn back to the airport, resulting in a preventable accelerated stall, Katz said.
“The fault of this incident lies squarely with the performance (and lack thereof) of this pilot,” Katz said. “Yes, the wrong fuel was delivered to the airplane and the fueler is responsible for his actions but NOT the result.”
Greenwald’s widow Julia, as a representative of his estate, didn’t wait for the final report to sue the city of Kokomo, and the city settled the lawsuit in June, agreeing to pay $700,000 — the maximum allowed under Indiana’s tort claim laws — through the city’s insurer, the Kokomo Tribune reported. The lawsuit claimed the employee, John Yount, was not properly trained for the job, a result of negligence on the part of the city and its airport.
A representative for the Indianapolis law firm that represented Greenwald’s estate in the suit could not immediately be reached on Wednesday.
According to the final report, the owner of the Aerostar, whose name is not included, told investigators he was supposed to receive initial training in the airplane from Tampa-based flight instruction company In Flight Review Inc., but it never happened for “various reasons.” The owner said he never gave permission for Greenwald, who worked for In Flight Review, to fly the airplane, the report says.
The Aerostar was registered at the time to Indiana Paging Network, a company that provides paging services. A message left with the company on Wednesday was not immediately returned.
Robert Losurdo, founder and chief executive of In Flight Review, where Greenwald worked, told the Times in 2019 that Greenwald was training the Cheyenne pilot in Indiana for another company but apparently also planned to conduct a training session with the Aerostar’s owner.
Losurdo said he told Greenwald he wouldn’t be able to do the Aerostar training after all because the owner had not submitted required paperwork to the company. Losurdo figured Greenwald was on his way back to Tampa when the crash happened.
Losurdo said there’s no way Greenwald would have knowingly ordered jet fuel for the Aerostar, a make of airplane that Greenwald had owned. In addition to his private medical practice, Bayshore Plastic Surgery, Greenwald had worked at least 15 years as an instructor for In Flight Review, Losurdo said.
Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated Robert Katz’s assessment of how the crash might have been avoided.