A plane carrying a Tennessee couple and their two grandchildren broke apart in midair before crashing in North Georgia in 2017, a crash investigation determined.
The plane, a twin-engine Piper PA-23, was destroyed during an “in-flight breakup” near Chatsworth after the pilot, who was not instrument rated, became disoriented while flying into a developing thunderstorm, according to a report released this week by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The crash in Murray County killed 55-year-old Dexter Lee Gresham and his wife Mary Jo Yarbrough, 61, of Etowah, Tenn. Yarbrough’s 10-year-old grandchildren Austin Day and Kinsley Wilson, both of Corinth, Miss., were also killed in the crash, AJC.com previously reported.
Gresham and his family were flying back to Tennessee after spending several days in Alabama, authorities said.
In their report, NTSB officials confirmed Gresham was not certified to fly a plane using only his instrument panel. They also said he did not speak with an air traffic controller at any point during the flight, and there was no evidence he received an official preflight weather briefing before taking off the afternoon of July 1.
“Witnesses near the accident site reported that a thunderstorm was advancing toward the area and that the sky was becoming very dark,” according to the report. “Although it was not yet raining, they heard thunder in the distance, and it was windy. They heard an airplane flying above, then saw pieces of the airplane falling from the sky.”
Examination of the plane and both of its engines revealed nothing that would have prevented the plane from flying, authorities said. Based on the debris found, investigators determined Gresham was likely flying in turbulent conditions with limited visibility before the crash, causing him to become disoriented.
When a pilot experiences spatial disorientation, sensory conflicts and optical illusions often make it difficult for them to tell which way is up, investigators said.
“It is likely that, upon encountering the conditions associated with the (storm), the pilot became spatially disoriented, which resulted in a loss of control, subsequent exceedance of the airplane's design stress limitations, and an in-flight breakup,” authorities wrote.
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