Alan P. Lavendar was making his first flight since repairing a chronic fuel leak in his home-built plane when the aircraft caught fire and looked like a “meteor” as it crashed in Metheun in 2017, ending the life of the former Newburyport mayor, according to a new National Transportation Safety Board report.
The NTSB released its factual findings into the Feb. 28, 2017 crash of Lavendar’s Sonex aircraft that he purchased as a kit in 2015 and built himself by May 2016. The report provides details of what the NTSB learned from the wreckage, but does not offer a conclusion on why the plane suddenly veered off course, and crashed as flames poured out of the bottom of the aircraft.
An eyewitness told the NTSB he was driving along Interstate 495 around 1 p.m. when he spotted the single wing plane through his sunroof flying at just 150 feet above the ground. The witness said the belly of the aircraft was engulfed in “very bright red” flames and the airplane looked like a “meteor” as it flew past him just seconds before it crashed into the roof of a Methuen condo.
Lavender, 73, was killed by the impact and no one else was injured. An avid outdoorsman, Lavender served as mayor in Newburyport from 2002 to 2003, and was known for his passion for experimental flying and World War II aircraft, the Globe reported following the crash.
In an e-mail that he sent to fellow pilots two days before the crash, Lavender wrote that he had last flown the plane on Oct. 8, 2016 and had since twice pulled out the fuel tank to resolve a leak.
“The problem turned out to be cross-threading of the fitting in the main fuel outlet from the tank,’’ he wrote, adding that he left a white paper towel under his repaired engine as tell-tale for new leaks. “Avgas [aviation gas] has a blue die added, so it would show up ... Now there is no indication of a leak.”
Two days later, Lavendar put 12 gallons of gas into the plane’s tank and told air controllers at Lawrence Memorial Airport in Andover that he would be circling the field and conducting “touch and go” flights as part of his testing of the repair work, according to the NTSB report.
“I will stay in the traffic pattern and do a bunch of touch-and-goes to make sure everything is working correctly,’’ he wrote in the e-mail.
The NTSB said the leak was located near the fuel shutoff valve in the cockpit. After the crash, fire damage was found on the left side of the plane and in the left side of the engine and that the fuel shutoff valve was so damaged by the fire investigators could not determine where it was postioned prior to the crash.
Terry Brockett, the air traffic controller overseeing operations at Lawrence Memorial, told the NTSB that Lavendar easily took off, and reached an altitiude of 1,400 feet when he was instructed to make a wider loop back to the airport to avoid another plane arriving at about the same time.
Lavendar acknowledged the new instructions and had descended to about 500 feet with an air speed of up to 90 knots when it suddenly changed its flight path. Lavendar “made a very shallow s-turn maneuver to the left, and then back to the right before it suddenly nosed over into a right hand turn and disappeared behind trees” a mile away.
Lavendar crashed into the third floor of a condo unit located in the flight path from the Lawrence Memorial Airport, the NTSB noted. A sprinkler system doused the flames.
The plane had 7 gallons of fuel in the still-intact tank when examined following the crash, the NTSB said.
A final report on the crash which will include a determination of the cause will be issued later this year, according to the NTSB.John R. Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.