State police Investigator Timothy Cowper went down in an aircraft of his own creation, according to a recently released National Transportation Safety Board report.
Cowper, 55, of Middle Grove, took off from the Plateau Sky Ranch airstrip on Sept. 29 in his home-built Pitts aerobatic biplane. Less than a mile away the craft lost altitude and crashed in a wooded area a few yards away from Tange Road in Edinburg. He died on impact and the wreckage burst into flames.
Following a 30-day investigation, NTSB investigator Ralph Hicks released his preliminary crash report. At this point, he’s still not sure what caused it.
“A lot of the plane was burned,” he said. “Aluminum melts at a lower temperature than steel, so we lost a lot of that.”
The report did provide some facts that were not available at the time of the crash. Hicks said Cowper held an experimental aircraft builder certificate and was the registered builder of the Pitts that crashed.
A few hours after the crash, state police Maj. Steven James said witnesses described some sort of mechanical failure before the plane went down. According to Hicks’ report, those witnesses saw the plane go into a steep banking turn back toward the airport. Before the craft disappeared from view, they reported the angle of the bank increased, and the engine revved.
It’s not clear at this point if that steep turn was purposeful. According to Hicks, steering cables to the rear rudder were intact, but the aileron cables were burned away.
“Ailerons are out on the wings,” he said. “They basically control the roll of the aircraft.”
Since those cords were burned away, it’s not immediately obvious whether Cowper was actually trying to turn his plane in an attempt to land back at Sky Ranch, or whether they were stuck on, turning him toward the ground.
Hicks said Cowper never radioed anyone on the ground about engine or hardware failure on his Pitts — which could suggest there was no mechanical failure.
“We look at man, machine and environment in great detail,” he said. “Any of those things can cause a crash.”
On the day of the crash, the report said, “visual metrological conditions prevailed.” In layman’s terms it was a beautiful day. Hicks said the investigation into the plane crash will last six more months.
“We’re also running tox-screens on Cowper,” he said.
A more detailed report will be released some time next year.