Pilot Cited Visibility In Maryland Power Line Crash


The pilot of a Mooney that crashed into power lines and a tower in Maryland earlier this week told a 911 dispatcher that visibility was a factor in the accident. Patrick Merkle, 66, called 911 after the aircraft that carried him and passenger Janet Williams came to rest and discussed the moments before the crash with dispatcher Laurel Manion, according to a story in the Washington Post. “Yes, totally a visibility …” he said. “We were looking for the airport. I descended to the minimum altitude, and then apparently I got down a little lower than I should have.” 

The Mooney hit the power lines about 100 feet above the ground and was swaying in the wind there for seven hours before Merkle and Williams were finally rescued. Merkle told the dispatcher he was afraid the plane would fall and that he and Williams would not survive. He told her they considered jumping from the plane to the tower. The crash and the need to isolate the tower from the grid combined to knock out power to as many as 120,000 people although most of the lights were back on even before the couple was rescued.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. A hundred feet off the ground? That aircraft doesn’t look like a crop duster to me. Usually even minimum airport traffic patterns are 1000 feet agl. For this very reason. Every chart I have seen lists obstacles and altitude minimums. I would love to sit in on the board of inquiry regarding this incident.

  2. By “minimum altitude”, does he mean the MEF on the chart, or does he mean 500 AGL and clear of clouds (assuming Class G airspace in an uncongested area)? Seems like it’s the latter, because the MEF is much higher, and you would have to get more than “a little lower” to hit the power lines.

    • Ah, he was on an IFR flight plan, so by “minimum altitude” he means of the approach. So I’ll now assume it was the GPS-A approach, which goes down to 540 AGL.

        • It’s the only approach that makes sense how he would end up where he was, and being a non-precision circling approach, it’d more likely to unintentionally drop below the MDA. But I don’t know what approach was used.

  3. Yesterday I gave the first flight lesson to a new student pilot. The student read chapters one and two of the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook prior to class. The briefing started out with “do you have any questions about the reading assignment”? “No” she replied. You should have seen the confused look on her face when I replied “you just read the most important chapter that you will ever read in your entire aviation career and you have no questions”? Chapter two covers risk management ADM, SRM etc. I. expected a “no” answer. Boring stuff and to a new pilot this information would have little meaning. It was a great teaching moment and insight into how all of her future training would be conducted.

    God bless.

    • I’m not a flight instructor, but as a teacher I know exactly what you mean. Exploiting those “Oh yeah…” and “A-HA!” moments as a student’s frame of reference expands to put context to what they’ve learned is a powerful and rewarding instructional tool.

  4. To me it is nothing more than slightly, but seriously screwing up his instrument approach which was going to have to proceed to minimums to possibly see the runway based on the weather at the time. He was making a professional pilot level approach. He is only an instrument rated private pilot. Single pilot IFR done by a recreationally level pilot is difficult with busy workload. A professional frequently has a copilot. In his anxiousness to land out of this approach, he briefly let his altitude get away from him, and as he said, got too low. A couple of hundred feet of altitude loss is no big thing except when at the final stages of an IMC approach to minimums. The investigation should be no more than listening to him say again, “damn, I got too focused on trying to see anything visually outside and let my instrument scan at this critical time loose track of my altitude. When I was ATC at BNA, an AAL B727 making an ILS to 2L, weather right at minimums, did the same thing. Outside the approach lights they became distracted looking for the runway and dropped down into the approach lights, taking out the length of them. Landed ok and taxied to the gate. I’ve been an aviator for 62 years and still remember that time when I also screwed up….or wait maybe it was both times….ah…I just can’t remember.

  5. It’s always a great temptation to get lower.
    A game required for this kind of approach. Moments of inattention and break down in discipline. He had another set of eyes to look outside. Part of CRM would have been an approach brief to his pax to be his lookout while he flew the plane all the way to mins. Having defined a VDP if that is what is required as well. so you don’t go low before its time to land. The ground track looks like he turned left in the last mile probably lured off course by another set of lights.

  6. In the ATC audio of the event you can clearly hear ATC telling him he is too low. They repeat it so apparently he never acknowledged their warning. He also apparently had trouble maintaining the courses ATC called out for him. They had to correct several course deviations.
    Unfortunately the audio I heard was only the ATC side of the conversation.

    • He was talking to the approach controller who, once cleared for the RNAV 14 approach, then handed him off to the CTAF frequency. Since he likely had switched over to CTAF that’s why he didn’t hear the low altitude alert calls from the approach controller.

      He didn’t fly the published approach, plain and simple. He descended too low and the two of them are exceedingly lucky to be alive.

      • Seems like monitoring APP after changing to CTAF might have been a good thing in this case. Assuming that the Mooney had two receivers, that is. This practice helped me as a flight instructor in the SOCAL environment.

        • Switching to CTAF seems idiotic; no one else is flying in that muck. Stay with ATC and only close on 121.6 (if) when you land. The chances of a missed approach also seemed so high that I would not have switched away from my only “helper” that evening.

          • I’m just starting my instrument training, I like this idea. I have two comms so will monitor APP even after I switch to CTAF.

          • Arthur, with the benefit of hindsight, I think you are correct – the Mooney pilot should have stayed with the approach controller. The ATC recording which was released provides only the controller’s side of the communication but to me it sounds like the pilot may have actually requested the freq change to CTAF, because after the pilot was cleared for the approach, the controller is heard saying, “change to advisory frequency approved..” So one would assume that, had he stayed with approach, the pilot would have heard the low altitude alert calls and quite likely would have avoided hitting the tower. Lesson learned, right?

  7. MANY years ago I was just 17 with a still-wet private pilot’s certificate. I was the resident airport bum, you know, the kid who hung out at the airport with a sign that said, “will do anything to fly.” When not flying OPA (other people’s airplanes) I helped at the ground school tutoring and running the link trainer. (Yes, I was proficient at VOR and NDB approaches in the sim even if I didn’t have my instrument rating yet.)

    A rusty pilot bought a Navion and came to the school asking for a CFI to teach him how to use the, “new-fangled VOR things.” (This was 1971.) For some reason they pointed him to me and I agreed to ride along and teach him how to navigate with VOR. I got stick time in the Navion, which sealed the deal.

    He decided he wanted to fly from Cable, our home airport in SoCal, to Gallup, NM, to see his family. I had flown that route numerous times with my dad in various aircraft so I agreed to go along and continue talking about modern VOR navigation.

    When we arrived at Gallup it was dark. Visibility was probably 100nm but in that part of the world, when it gets dark, it gets DARK. And in the darkness lay mountains. BIG mountains. So I suggested that, since we couldn’t SEE the mountains that we fly the VOR approach to Gallup in VFR conditions just to ensure terrain separation. I said I would fly the approach and when he had a solid visual on the runway, he would take the plane and land. Good plan.

    So I flew the approach and he watched outside. A bit later, about halfway through the approach he said, “OK, I have the runway.”

    “Your airplane,” I quipped and looked down to close up the Jepp book I had borrowed from my dad. Charts and plates stowed, I looked up … to see a red light directly in front and ABOVE us. I grabbed the yoke and pulled. We must have missed whatever it was on top of that invisible mountain because I’m still here. At just about that moment he said, “Huh, the airport just disappeared.” Uh huh. Sometimes even when you try to do everything right …

    Lesson? I let him take the airplane before we hit the missed-approach point (MAP). I let him give away the ground clearance I had built in to the approach to the airport. Somehow that year between my private and my commercial I learned a LOT flying with other people. Fortunately I survived.

    Lesson: night is no time to dink around down low. Night is when you fly by IFR even if technically it is VFR. Stuff sticks up out there. Don’t help it find your airplane.

    • The AA flight at Cali also suffered loss of performance due to spoilers left deployed while attempting a climb. As a sim instructor I always taught that only the PIC should deploy spoilers…and he Must Keep his Hand on them (the spoiler-levers) until he Stows them….so that they won’t be forgotten.
      If I saw spoilers deployed and a pilot remove his hand from them, I’d give a jet-upset/unusual attitude which required full throttle… then I’d “freeze” the sim…and point out that the pilot had full power applied while spoilers were still deployed.
      It hopefully made a lasting memory for the client.

  8. I wonder what was SO important that caused that man to even attempt that flight, under those conditions. After viewing the various videos and audios of of this flight, it is painfully obvious that he was having difficulty following ATC instructions and flying the airplane. In my mind, the only surprising outcome of this event is the fact that he and his passenger didn’t end up dead. This man had no business flying that plane in those conditions. Experienced Professional pilots have difficulties in similar conditions. They are Suicide Missions for Weekend Warriors like this guy.

  9. He was cleared for the RNAV approach to Runway 14, which is both an LPV approach (vertical guidance to the ground with Minimum descent altitude of 300′ above the ground and a plain LNAV without vertical guidance of 500′. Since he originally requested the RNAV A circling approach with an MDA of 600′, it is possible he did not have a WAAS GPS in the aircraft enabling vertical guidance and LPV approaches, and was going to be flying the “Dive and Drive” style of approach, wherein pilots are able to descend quickly to minimum altitude for next sector of approach after passing a fix. After passing JOXOX, he would have been legal to descend to 500′ AGL immediately, and may have seen lights on the ground below tempting him to start descending further, even though runway not in sight… That said, initiating a non-precision GPS approach with weather 300′ below minimums seems pretty unwise on a dark and cloudy night after a long day flying…

      • Good words. Could have been motivated to land based on fuel quantity. Going below minimums will happen one way or another. They are very blessed.

  10. What is remarkable to me is going from (probably) 70 to 80 knots to zero knots in a nanosecond and walking away with seemingly minor, if any, injuries. A testament to the structural integrity of the Mooney and the restraint system. It’s difficult to see the engine position in the picture, but one has to imagine it impinged on the firewall pretty significantly.