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Fog may have caused fatal Fall City plane crash
A 70-year-old man was killed early Tuesday morning when his small plane crashed at the Snoqualmie Falls Golf Course at 8:15 a.m. He was alone in the 1958 Cessna 182, which took off from the nearby Fall City Airport in a heavy fog just minutes earlier, and was the only victim of the crash.
The King County Medical Examiner's office on Wednesday identified the man as John Ciliberti.
The dense fog that may have contributed to the accident dissipated within an hour, revealing a violent crash that tore the wings from the plane, flipped it upside down and, according to the golf course supervisor who saw the crash, threw the pilot nearly 50 feet from the fuselage.
Visiting the site in the early afternoon, Larry LeFevre, president of Fall City Airport Association where the victim rented space, was saddened and confused.
"I don't know where he was going, or if it was urgent, but if he'd just waited another 45 minutes, the fog would have burned off," LaFevre said, looking up at the almost cloudless sky. "It would have been like it is now."
Because the airport is small and private, averaging four or fewer take-offs a day, LeFevre said none of the pilots typically file flight plans, either.
He got word of the crash immediately, he said, when a neighbor to the airport property called him. "He saw the take-off, and then he saw him make a right turn right over his head," LeFevre reported. The neighbor said the plane then turned left and then he heard "a crunching sound."
The course supervisor had been working outside when the accident happened, and he heard the plane before he saw it.
"The fog was down to 50 feet or something like that," he said, and when he heard the plane, "I thought it was one of those biplanes, practicing for SeaFair." Holding his palms horizontal, stacked less than a foot apart, he added "His wheels were about this far off the ground when I saw him, then boom."
First, the plane's right wing hit a tree. The impact slammed the plane onto the ground, but it bounced up and continued flying, until it hit another large tree squarely and broke into pieces. A course employee, Kevin Adcox was mowing the ninth fairway and narrowly missed being hit by the plane, and about 20 golfers were on various parts of the course, but none were near the ninth fairway, and there were no other injuries. A small engine fire, started during the crash, burned out without incident.
"We're very lucky that nobody was on nine," said course golf pro David Doty. "We were just about to start a ladies tournament at 8:30."
LeFevre, who'd come to the course to find out about other injuries, was also relieved to hear that no one else had been hurt. He answered a few questions about the airport, and speculated briefly about what may have caused the accident. His guess is that Ciliberti experienced spatial disorientation when he flew into the fog, unable to tell up from down, let alone directions, and he probably knew it when he turned the plane the second time.
"I don't know what he was thinking, but maybe he was trying to get back to the runway," he said, adding that he's seen disoriented pilots attempt the same maneuver "many times."
Pilot error is not the only potential cause though, LeFevre said. "One of the possibilities is carburetor ice, since he was flying in that fog."
Official investigations into the cause began just before noon, when representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration arrived and took over the scene from the King County Sheriff's officers who'd been there since about 8:30 a.m.
The golf course was closed immediately after the crash. NTSB and FAA investigators estimated they might be done with their work at the site, and have the debris cleared away by late afternoon, but Doty said the course would stay closed for the day
"It's just too much speculation," he said.
Answering the busy phone lines at the golf course office, Doty and staffer Glenn Uno updated callers as well as they could with information about the course, referring them to the course website, www.snoqualmiefallsgolf.com, and taking reservations.
"We are going to be open later this week, so we've got to book tee times," Doty said. He expected to open as usual on Wednesday.
Federal investigators have not offered any information on the crash yet, and the investigation could be lengthy. The report from a Feb. 15 2012, plane crash on Mount Si was published nearly a full year after the accident.
Above, photo courtesy City of Snoqualmie. Below, photo by Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo
Federal investigators are looking into the fatal crash of a small plane Tuesday morning near Fall City. John Ciliberti, who rents hangar space in Fall City, died when the single-engine four-seater crashed at Snoqualmie Falls Golf Course.