CAHOKIA, Ill. (AP) -- Pilot error and nothing mechanical caused year's fiery crash of a small plane that slammed into a southwestern Illinois house and hanger in rain and fog, killing a banker and another man on board, federal investigators have concluded.
The National Transportation Safety Board, in a report issued June 27, said pilot Donald Estell was relying on cockpit gauges in "challenging visibility" to land the 21-year-old, single-engine Piper aircraft and never sent a distress signal before the plane went down near Belleville the night of Feb. 21, 2010.
The NTSB listed as the crash's probable cause Estell's "spatial disorientation" -- a problem when pilots lose track of the position and motion of their plane relative to the earth's surface -- "and subsequent failure to maintain airplane control during the instrument approach."
The six-seat plane was on its second approach to St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, just southeast of St. Louis, when it crashed about five miles away in a subdivision built for aviation enthusiasts, killing 65-year-old Estell of Clayton, Mo., and Robert Clarkson, 77, of Belleville. No one on the ground was injured.
The board's report found that Estell was returning from Vero, Fla., where he had undergone days of training largely on the aircraft's global-positioning equipment.
Estell, a banker who once headed the former Missouri Division of Commerce and Industrial Development, was a licensed pilot who often having volunteered his services for and served as a board member of Angel Flight Central, a nonprofit agency that arranges charitable flights for humanitarian causes.
Estell, who the NTSB report said had at least 1,750 hours of piloting experience, had been board chairman of Stern Brothers & Co., a Clayton-based regional investment banking firm, before becoming Commerce Bank's director of public finance in 2009.
According to the NTSB report, flames after the crash left the plane "severely fragmented," with various components burned and in some cases melted. But investigators found no evidence of mechanical malfunction or failure that could have caused the crash of the plane, which was registered to Bingham Capital Markets St. Louis, the board found.
Bob McDaniel, the Cahokia airport's director, has said FAA records showed that the plane left Vero Beach at 3:19 p.m. CST Sunday -- about an hour behind schedule -- and was approaching the Cahokia airport in light rain about three hours later when the crash occurred.
"The weather was well within (the pilot's) capabilities," McDaniel said. "It's just somewhat of a mystery."
Johnson said it was a miracle that no one on the ground was injured, noting that the home's occupants were dining out at the time. Neighbors broke out windows to rescue two dogs that were inside the burning house, Johnson said.
Houses in the subdivision have hangars and private runways.
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