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St. Pete veterinarian’s plane struck tree on approach to airport, report says

Harvey Partridge told a tower controller he had the runway in sight just before crashing into a 100-foot tall pine tree, according to the NTSB.

St. Petersburg veterinarian Harvey Partridge struggled to find the runway of a North Carolina airport before his airplane struck a pine tree last month and crashed, killing Partridge and his wife, according to a preliminary federal report.

The report by the National Transportation Safety Board chronicles how Partridge had trouble finding the runway in dark, overcast conditions as he piloted a single-engine Piper Saratoga to the Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Oct. 20.

A flight app that tracks aircraft shows the plane taking a wayward path toward the runway.

Here’s the account from the NTSB report:

Partridge and his wife Pat, both 72, left Columbus Airport in Georgia about 4:05 p.m. that day. It was dark when they approached the Raleigh airport a few hours later. Harvey Partridge requested a specific runway, but air traffic controllers told him to take the Runway 32 approach.

At that point, the report says, Partridge “reported that he had GPS and autopilot issues,” so the controllers gave him headings to Runway 32. Partridge continued the approach and “broke out” of the clouds about seven miles from the airport at an altitude of about 1,800 feet.

When the controller cleared Partridge for a visual approach to the runway, “the pilot responded he saw ‘lots of lights’ but he did not see the runway,” the report says.

READ MORE: Harvey, Pat Partridge mourned in plane crash. 'Never a dog he couldn’t save.’

By the time Partridge had flown to within five or six miles of the airport, he had dropped to an altitude of 1,300 feet. The controller issued a “low-altitude alert” and directed Partridge to climb to 2,000 feet. Partridge said he thought he had the airport beacon in sight, and the controller again cleared him for visual approach to the runway.

About five miles from the airport, at an altitude of 1,400 feet, Partridge asked, “How am I doing on altitude?” The controller said he was fine and was cleared for visual approach if he had the runway in sight. When Partridge said he could only identify the airport beacon, the controller said he would turn up the intensity of the runway lights.

When the plane was three to four miles away, at an altitude of 1,000 feet, the controller again asked Partridge if he had the runway in sight, and Partridge said “he believed it was coming into view,” the report says. The controller then directed Partridge to contact the Raleigh Durham tower controller.

When the plane was about three miles away, the tower controller asked if he had the runway in sight and Partridge said he did. The controller then asked Partridge if he was on a two-mile final approach, but he did not respond. The tower then lost radar contact with the plane.

Investigators found the wreckage of the Piper about 1.2 miles southeast of Runway 32, in the William B. Umstead State Park. The plane’s initial point of impact was a 100-foot tall pine tree, the report says, and a large section of the right wing remained lodged in the tree. The crash happened at 7:21 p.m.

Preliminary reports do not include conclusions about suspected causes of crashes. The final report can take a year or more to complete.

The report notes that Partridge reported flight time of 4,000 hours and had the proper ratings to fly an airplane using instruments as well as by sight. But the picture that has emerged so far indicates Partridge wasn’t proficient in using the instrumentation required to bring the plane in at night, said Robert Katz, a Dallas, Texas-based flight instructor and veteran pilot who tracks plane crashes across the nation.

Partridge’s flight path and his dialogue with air traffic control indicate he didn’t properly program the plane’s GPS for the approach, Katz said. At one point, he tells the controller his “autopilot shut off,” but Katz said he suspects it was never engaged.

At that point, Partridge aborted the approach and turned around, telling the controller, “Let me figure out what’s going on here.”

A screen capture from shows the path of the Piper Saratoga that Harvey Partridge was flying before it crashed on approach to Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Oct 20. Partridge and his wife Pat were killed.
A screen capture from shows the path of the Piper Saratoga that Harvey Partridge was flying before it crashed on approach to Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Oct 20. Partridge and his wife Pat were killed. [ ]

The controller gave him new headings and though Partridge seemed to struggle to follow the instructions, he was eventually able to line up with the airport, the audio shows.

By then, though, he was likely hunting for the runway out the window instead of focusing on the plane’s instruments, Katz said.

Katz said he doesn’t believe Partridge actually had the runway in sight because if he had, he likely wouldn’t have crashed.

“What matters is how proficient we are at doing what is required of us at the critical moment," Katz said. "These skills will atrophy if not used on a regular basis.”

The Partridges’ son, David Partridge, said Tuesday his family is awaiting the conclusion of the investigation. The tragedy is still fresh, he said.

“We’re just missing my parents, all of us family and friends," David Partridge said. “It’s been a struggle.”

Staff writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.