FAA checks crash site; Autopsy results won't be available for weeks
GRAND FORKS, N. D. -- Two investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration completed their examination of the crashed Piper Cherokee in White Earth State Forest in Clearwater County southwest of Bagley, Minn., within a few hours Thursday, Sheriff Mike Erickson said.
Meanwhile, the autopsy on the body of pilot Andrew Lindberg was completed Thursday by a medical examiner in Hibbing, Minn., Erickson said. But results of the autopsy won't be available for weeks, he said.
The company insuring the plane also had representatives at the scene and will bring in a crew to remove the wreckage from the remote area, using all-terrain vehicles and trailers, Erickson said.
Lindberg, 32, grew up in Kittson County and was flying from Lakeville, Minn., to Hallock, Minn., on Nov. 13 when his plane went down in cloudy, drizzly weather.
He had text-messaged his father, Bill Lindberg, about 6:30 p.m. Nov. 13 that he was flying over Staples, Minn. The crash site, which is about 22 miles east and slightly south of Mahnomen, Minn., is roughly 72 miles by air northwest of Staples, and close to a straight line between Staples and Hallock. At the single-engine Piper Cherokee's cruising speed of 168 mph, it would take about 26 minutes to fly 72 miles.
According to the National Weather Service office in Grand Forks, flying conditions near Bemidji early in the evening of Nov. 13 were not the best.
Bemidji is about 33 miles northeast, as the crow flies, from the crash site.
At 6 p.m. Nov. 13 at Bemidji, there was a light north wind of about 6 mph, and overcast cloud conditions beginning at 800 feet above the ground, said David Kellenbenz, meteorologist with the weather service in Grand Forks.
"That's a pretty low cloud cover," he said. "It's what we call IFR, or instrument flight rules."
That means pilots should use their instruments and gauges to guide them and not rely on flying by sight.
By 6:51 p.m. Friday at Bemidji, the cloud layer had fallen to 400 feet above the ground, Kellenbenz said.
There is no record of exactly how high the cloud cover extended above 400 feet, but at this time of year, it very likely went 2,000 to 3,000 feet in thickness and probably quite a bit higher, Kellenbenz said.
Law enforcement officers from the areas around the crash site said there were reports of some rain Friday night, although the weather service said there was no rain at Bemidji.
A small aircraft headed from the Twin Cities to northwest Minnesota would be expected to fly at 2,500 feet, or 4,500 feet or 6,500 feet, based on a general rule of aviation. But there are no hard rules against flying at some altitude between 500 feet and 2,000 feet.
Lindberg only recently had obtained his pilot's license. He had flown the same trip to Hallock a week earlier, said his uncle, the Rev. Bob Griggs.
Every licensed pilot such as Lindberg has some training at flying at night and instruments-only flying, not relying only on vision.
The FAA investigators, conducting the examination for the National Traffic Safety Board, arrived at the scene about 4 p.m. Wednesday and returned Thursday, Erickson said. Results of such federal investigations of aircraft accidents typically aren't released publicly for several months after the onscene examination.
Erickson said pilots who viewed the wreckage said it appeared the Piper Cherokee was more or less upside-down when it hit the ground at a steep angle, perhaps after spiraling toward the ground. Part of the plane burned.
Pilots say it's easy to get disoriented, even as to which direction is up or down, when flying at night in cloudy weather, especially over such an unpopulated forested area that has few lights on the ground.
Two years ago, a UND plane flown by a student pilot and an instructor crashed about 10 miles south of Staples during a training flight at night, killing both people. NTSB officials determined a Canada goose in the dark sky hit and damaged parts of the plane, causing the crash.
Despite four days of searching involving 400 trained volunteers and 18 aircraft from the Minnesota Civil Air Patrol, as well as a general appeal to the public to check property, the wrecked plane wasn't sighted until 4:30 p.m. Tuesday by a private pilot doing his own search.
Tom Hill, Walker, Minn., was flying home from Mahnomen after four hours of searching when he caught a glint of the plane's tail sticking up out of a wooded hillock.
More than 60 searchers from a dozen or more law enforcement agencies coordinated by Erickson's office got to the site on foot Wednesday morning, secured it, found the plane, identified the body in the wreckage as Lindberg's, and removed the body from the site.
No funeral arrangements have been announced yet by Lindberg's family, Erickson said.
Stephen J. Lee is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald. The Herald and the Bemidji Pioneer are both owned by Forum Communications Co.