The National Transportation Safety Board last month released its final report on a plane crash in Gilbert in 2016 in which a small single-engine plane carrying skydivers plummeted into a couple’s home.
Everyone survived the September 2016 incident, but the exact cause of the crash was not known until now.
The plane was partaking in Gilbert’s annual Constitutional Week Celebration, and the team of sky divers were set to jump out of the plane while sparklers attached to their ankles lit up.
It turns out that the skydivers were not the only ones equipped with fireworks.
The owner of the plane had attached a sparkler device to the plane itself, unbeknownst to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Interviews with the pilot led the NTSB to discover that the large sparkler box that was attached to the plane’s left wing exploded, rupturing a fuel line and causing the plane to plummet into the Gilbert home.
‘Fire on the wings, fire in the airplane’
The night of the incident seemed like it was the ideal night to fly.
The wind was calm and the night sky was clear, near-perfect conditions for skydivers and fireworks alike.
The plane did two loops around the Gilbert Civic Center before it and the jumpers were given final go-ahead to begin the show.
The pilot was inexperienced in the situation, and told investigators it was only his second time doing a skydiving flight at night with this company.
Once they received the all-clear, the owner, who was also jumping, activated the sparkler on the left wing of the plane and then got ready to jump.
A few moments later, there was a small “ping” followed by what the pilot described as an “explosion.”
Plexiglass from the windows burst into the plane, hitting jumpers in the face. One jumper began yelling “fire” as another urged everyone to “go, go, go!” One of the jumpers sustained a percussion injury to one of her ears from the explosion.
The pilot told investigators he looked out the window at the left wing and saw the damage that was done and fuel was pouring out. Jagged pieces of metal hung out towards the pilot window.
He glanced at the fire, which he said was going all the way back to the tail of the plane.
The pilot quickly shut off the fuel line to the left wing and began radioing for help.
“….have an emergency situation, ah fire on the wings, fire in the airplane,” the pilot said in a radio transmission to nearby air traffic controllers.
Shortly after radioing for help, the pilot, who was equipped with his own parachute, jumped from the plane as the heat from the fire got too intense and he was unable to keep control of the small prop plane. He originally intended to try and land the plane himself.
All this happened in just under two minutes.
The plane fell from 5,000 feet directly into the middle of a home in the 400 block of Baylor Lane, near Gilbert and Ray roads, where Peter and Sharon Lebeau were watching TV. It was just about 20 minutes past 7 p.m..
The co-owner of the plane would later tell investigators that they had never had issues in the past with the pyrotechnic box that was attached to the left wing. Its purpose was to sparkle as the jumpers left the plane, giving those on the ground a heads up of where to look during night jumps.
Both the co-owner and pilot would later tell the NTSB that the box was installed the night of the accident and had only been used once before.
Under federal law, modifications to aircraft have to be approved by the FAA in order to make sure they do not create any additional risks or other issues with an aircraft.
When the pilot asked the co-owner about the box, he said it was a “minor alteration” which did not require FAA approval. The FAA was unaware of the installation of the pyrotechnic box.
The crash site
The Gilbert home the plane crashed into was a total loss.
The nose of the plane struck towards the back of the home and the wings ended up in the backyard.
A fire quickly broke out, but the homeowners were able to escape before the blaze consumed major portions of their home.
Inspectors located all parts of the plane at the crash site. Several parts were taken to the NTSB’s laboratory in Oklahoma, where the pyrotechnic box and left wing were examined.
The wings were found to have burn marks around the left wing, consistent with the pyrotechnic box explosion reported by the pilot.
“Examination of the aluminum metal pieces revealed a high degree of fragmentation, fractures along the fold lines, outward deformation, pedaling and curling of some of the edges, and cratering from high velocity particle impact, that were consistent with an explosion that originated from the inside of the pyrotechnics box,” the report says.
The owner of the plane, Thomas N. Talbott, told investigators he plans to continue working in aviation. He currently works for Aerial Extreme based out of Phoenix.