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Help me decode an old Mooney crash

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So this is personal to me. My grandpa owned a 1967 M20F, tail N2996L. Right after Christmas 2003, his mechanic/friend borrowed the plane to fly up to Ohio to visit family. He departed Ohio to come back to Florida but never made it. The plane crashed at the SC/NC border, with his friend perishing in the crash. Now it just so happens I'm working in the area, and if I can get a day off I'd like to go visit the crash site. I haven't seen the plane since I was a kid and I feel like it would bring some closure (wreckage is long gone). But something I can't workout:

The NTSB narrative says he ran out of fuel. Both tanks were dry, nothing in the fuel spider, and no browning of vegetation and no post-impact fire. Yet the son of the PIC states the aircraft topped off with fuel from departure. The route (best I can figure out) was OH29-24J, which is 646nm. My little M20D with puny 48 gallon tanks could make that (in a no-wind scenario) with daytime VFR reserves. How does a turbo-normalized M20F with 64 gallons not make that? Not only that, the crash site is only 345nm from departure. Possibly ran one tank dry and couldn't switch? Departure time 10:15, crashed ~12:30. That time and distance works out to an average speed of 153 knots across the ground

Assuming he was on one tank the entire time from takeoff,cruise, and finally starvation means he burned 32 gallons in 135 minutes which works out to be 14gph. That sounds plausible. But why would the other tank be dry?

Whats even MORE perplexing is there was a small (but suitable) airport a few miles away to his southwest along his route, but witnesses at the crash site say they saw him flying NORTH, which was away from the nearest suitable airport. I remember for a fact the aircraft was fitted with one of the early yoke-mount B&W moving map Garmin GPS units.

FWIW, the PIC was a commercial single/multi-engine pilot with over 3,500 hours and an A&P/IA cert. Aircraft did not have shoulder harnesses. It did have a working wing-leveler.


NTSB Narrative



Edited by Raptor05121
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My first thought is of fuel leaving the aircraft in flight due to incorrect securing of the fuel caps.   If one is not looking at the fuel caps during flight, or not aware of whats transpiring, the fuel departs rather quickly in that situation which could explain the empty tanks.  Good luck on your search.

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There are plenty of things that could have happened, but no matter what was happening to the fuel, you have to notice the fuel gauges going to zero. One tank always runs dry first. 

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There is a note in the report regarding the GPS... the data it had may be of interest to you... often the early Garmin GPS were good at using breadcrumbs to display where it had been with data points collected every second or so... and enough memory to collect 100hrs of flight before running over the old data...

Good luck with the hunt!

Best regards,


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They didn't find the left fuel cap, how much fuel would you lose if it was left off?  I know from (ahem) experience that you don't lose more than 5 gallons in an M20J making one turn around the pattern, but would you lose more at cruise speed?

Regarding flying north away from the nearest airport, I could totally see that with an old GPS and an incomplete database (or a wonky interface)

EDIT: Ooops, no, they did find it but it was in the open position, which shouldn't be an issue, right?

Edited by jaylw314
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regardless of fuel condition...pilot appears to have stall/spun into trees (according to witness and chordwise crushing)rather than accept gradual descent into trees with a chance that most energy would be depleted by airframe components striking trees one at a time.Not a great choice i realize ,but if he couldnt find an open field to put down on ,anything is better than a stall spin

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At the time of my accident I know I had 16 gallons in the left tank but the FAA investigator swears I had zero, with no signs of spillage/leakage.  @Alan Foxmentioned he has seen that before, just because there wasn't a fire or they don't find fuel doesn't mean he was empty.

The NTSB report stated "Carbon monoxide and cyanide testing was not performed."  Probably unlikely, but it's my job to throw the possibility of CO out there.  I believe CO has been a contributing factor in a lot more accidents than previously thought.  It wasn't (isn't?) always tested for, especially in non fatal accidents. I was surprised to see they didn't test this pilot.

Your theory of running a tank dry paired with CO could be a plausible scenario.  Many CO crashes are preceded by erratic flying that result in loss of control or CFIT.  I can imagine being CO impaired and flying relativity straight and level.  When the tank runs dry they would be overwhelmed quickly and not be able to handle the situation.

The pilot is their own worst enemy when CO impaired.  I was lucky I took a nap before I could mess things up.



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3 hours ago, DanM20C said:

I was lucky I took a nap before I could mess things up.

And that your plane was well trimmed and flew wings level!

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