NTSB: Pilot had trouble finding the runway at RDU before crash in Umstead State Park

The pilot of a single-engine plane that crashed in Umstead State Park last month told an air traffic controller that he had trouble seeing the runway as he approached Raleigh-Durham International Airport, though his last words to the airport’s control tower were that the runway was in sight, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Pilot Harvey Partridge initially asked to land on RDU’s Runway 5R, the 7,500-foot runway near Terminal 1 used by commercial jets, according to the NTSB report. Because of air traffic around the airport, he was told he would be directed to Runway 32, a 3,550-foot runway for smaller planes that he would approach over Umstead.

Partridge, a veterinarian, and his wife Patricia Partridge of Terra Ceia, Fla., died when the Piper PA-32 hit a 100-foot-tall pine tree about 1.2 miles from the runway and crashed in thick forest. The crash occurred about 7:21 p.m. on Oct. 20, after sunset, and the wreckage was not found until about 10 a.m. the next morning.

The NTSB’s three-page preliminary report lays out the federal agency’s initial findings but does not make any conclusions about what might have caused the crash. A final report identifying a likely cause will take a year or more to complete.

The Partridges took off from Columbus, Ga., a little after 4 p.m. Oct. 20, a Sunday. It had rained heavily at RDU that day, but by the time the couple approached the airport, the rain had stopped and visibility was more than 10 miles under overcast skies, according to the NTSB report.

Partridge told a Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controller that “he had GPS and autopilot issues,” and the controller provided him with radar vectors for a “straight-in approach” to Runway 32, according to the report. After Partridge reported that he “broke out” of the clouds about 7 miles from the airport, the controller cleared him for a visual approach to the runway.

Partridge told the controller he saw “lots of lights” but not the runway, the report says. The controller then issued Partridge an alert to indicate he was flying too low and instructed him to climb to 2,000 feet mean sea level (RDU is at 436 feet above mean sea level).

Asked if he could see the runway, Partridge said he thought he could see the beacon, a light that indicates an airport’s location, and the controller again cleared him for a visual approach. About five miles from the runway, Partridge had descended to 1,400 feet and asked the controller, “How am I doing on altitude?”

Fine, the controller responded, then said Partridge was cleared for a visual approach if he had the runway in sight.

“The only thing I see is the beacon,” Partridge responded, according to recordings of the radio traffic.

The controller then said he would increase the intensity of the runway lights. With the plane less than four miles from the runway and at an altitude of about 1,000 feet mean sea level, the controller again asked if Partridge could see the runway.

“I think it’s coming in now,” he said.

Partridge was then directed to contact the RDU control tower. When the tower controller asked Partridge if he could see the runway, he reconfirmed that he could, according to the report. When the tower asked Partridge if he was on his final approach, there was no answer.

The NTSB said Partridge co-owned the Piper and had an FAA pilot license with ratings for single-engine and multi-engine planes and one that allowed him to fly using only the instruments in the cockpit. At the time his last FAA medical certificate was issued, in December 2017, Partridge reported 4,000 hours of flight experience, according to the NTSB report.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.