The type of plane a Gettysburg pilot was flying when he struck the blade of a wind turbine south of Highmore and crashed had a strong reputation and no history of problems, pilots familiar with it said.
Dick Knapinski, of the Experimental Aircraft Association, said Piper PA32R-300s were solid, reliable planes. Knapinski, the group’s senior communications advisor, said he’s flown a Piper PA32R before.
The Experimental Aircraft Association is an international organization of aircraft enthusiasts based in Oshkosh, Wis.
Mobridge pilot Benj Stoick, who owns a PA23R-300, echoed Knapinski’s comments.
“They’re just a very reliable, very good-working airplane,” Stoick said.
In vehicle parlance, he compared a PA23R-300 to a Chevy Suburban or Ford Expedition, both of which are larger, stable vehicles.
Federal Aviation Administration records don’t show any history of significant problems with the planes.
Donald “DJ” Fischer was flying the plane when it hit the blade and crashed the night of April 27. He and three passengers – Brent Beitelspacher, of Bowdle; Logan Rau, of Java; and Nick Reimann, of Ree Heights, all cattlemen – died in the crash.
The men were on their way back from a cattle sale in Texas. The plane was registered to Fischer, who did crop spraying in the Gettysburg area.
According to registration paperwork filed with the FAA, Fischer bought the plane for $95,000 in November 2011 from Randy and Deborah Sunderman, of Norfolk, Neb. The Sundermans bought it in January 2000, the records show.
FAA maintenance records show that the last major improvement or repair made to the plane that was registered with the agency was in 2004, when the Sundermans owned it. Then, records show, new sun visors were put in. Prior to that, some of the repairs and upgrades to the plane included a fuel tank fix in 2001, a new GPS system in 2000 and putting on fiberglass wing tips in 1989.
Aberdeen-area pilots who looked over the records said there was nothing out of the ordinary about the repairs or upgrades made to the plane.
Knapinski explained how pilots have to record improvements and repairs to privately owned, non-commercial, single-engine planes like the Piper PA32R. He broke them into three phases.
• General care and maintenance: Tire replacements, oil changes and other jobs pilots can do on their own. They must be recorded in a pilot’s logbook.
• Those resulting from inspections: Planes must be inspected by a federally licensed aircraft mechanic every 1,000 hours or year, whichever comes first. Needed repairs or, for example, the replacement of an oil line, are noted. After they’re made, the mechanic must sign off on them in the logbook.
• Major alterations: Putting in a new motor or GPS or changing the wing design are examples. They must be reported to the FAA and the agency must sign off on them before the plane can be flown again.
The federally licensed mechanics are formally called airframe and powerplant mechanics. Knapinski said some pilots earn the designation so they can do work on their own planes. All airports have an FAA-certified mechanic who can inspect planes, he said.
Stoick equated the pilot’s logbook to a birth certificate. It should include all work done to a plane from the time it’s manufactured.
Not everything that is recorded in the logbook, though, is of consequence enough to report to the FAA.
Stoick said, based on tail numbers of his plane and Fischer’s, they were probably being manufactured by Piper at the same time.
Stoick said he had met or knew three of the crash victims. Fischer was a good pilot, Stoick said, and the crash was a tragedy for central South Dakota, home to all of the victims.
According to specs for Piper PA23R-300s, the planes could fly nearly 1,000 miles on a tank of fuel, so at least in theory, Fischer could have made it from Hereford, Texas, to Highmore without stopping.
An investigation into the flight is being conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA. It’s expected to last months. According to a preliminary report, Fischer’s plane took off from Hereford at 5 p.m. and was headed to Highmore, but struck the blade of a turbine at a South Dakota wind energy farm. The preliminary report showed the crash occurred at 9:16 p.m. about 11 miles south of Highmore.