A “Mile High” Fatality...
Near Rainbow Lake, Florida
December 23, 1991
Forty-five year old private pilot, Linda Varner Keath, with 470 hours of flight time, and a pilot rated passenger, 59 year old Carl Beauford Terry, were flying in a 1977 Piper Turbo Seneca II, owned by Trans Air Direct and registered as N47506, to practice simulated instrument flight, from Ocala (0CF), Florida, to Winter Haven (GIF), Florida.
A native of Winter Haven, Keath had been married for 16 years to her husband, Dan. Together, they started, in 1979, Radio Towers Construction & Services, Inc., which and operated a handful of towers used to transmit telephone signals. Over the years, the couple expanded the business into duplexes and citrus orchards. A mother to seven children and step-children, she was active in the local elementary school's Parent-Teacher Organization, and her Baptist church. She starting flying in August of 1990, under the instruction of Charles Cone, and was looking forward to the trip she had planned to fly her family to Alabama aboard this same plane the next day.
Terry had served in the U.S. Army, during both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as a helicopter pilot and warrant officer. He had continued to develop his career in aviation, earning an Airframe & Powerplant Mechanic certificate and multiple flight instructor ratings. He had sold his charter business a month earlier, as he had developed a heart problem, and moved the pride of his fleet to Winter Haven's Municipal Airport. There, he was helping Keath work towards her instrument rating.
The pair had dropped off Keath's husband's sister, Fern Snow, to visit friends in Ocala at that Monday morning. They stopped into the FBO there, Hawthorne Ocala aviation services, to use the restrooms, and returned to the skies. Shortly after takeoff, at 11:25 a.m., after leveling off to a cruising altitude of 2,500 feet, witnesses on the ground observed the airplane's right wing fail in a dive, and explode.
"I was sitting in my truck parked along a field on our farm when I just happened to look up and see the plane just before the explosion," said Willis Markham, an employee of the Coke Markham Farm in Romeo, located near the crash site. "I saw a little bit of colored smoke come from the plane, and then it flew into a million pieces. I couldn't tell if the explosion came from the engine or from inside the plane. After the explosion, the plane started circling down for a minute or so before it hitting the ground."The craft broke apart in midair, and crashed in a wooded area, spread over a mile in length, along Terrapin Avenue in Rainbow Lake just after 11:30 in the morning. Both Terry and Keath were flung from the spinning wreckage, and were killed on impact.
The FAA's preliminary report faulted structural damage to the Seneca's right wing at the point where it attaches to the body of the plane, causing the starboard engine to pivot towards the cockpit, and slice the fuselage "like a can opener", according to Captain Steve Binegar of the Marion County Sherriff's Department.
However, further examination of the wreckage, and the two bodies, revealed that both occupants were partially clothed and the front right seat was in the full aft reclining position, and neither of the two were wearing seatbelts or shoulder harnesses. Further examination of the individuals' clothing revealed no evidence of ripping or distress to the zippers and belts, suggesting that the clothing removal was voluntary.
Terry was buried at Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, Florida. Keath was buried at Lakeside Memorial Park Cemetery in Winter Haven, at a funeral attended by over 300 and included a flyover of seven float-equipped airplanes in a "missing man" formation.
In May of 1993, the National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident was the pilot in command's improper in-flight decision to divert her attention to other activities not related to the conduct of the flight. According to the NTSB, a contributing factor to the accident was the exceeding of the design limits of the airplane leading to a wing failure.
The participants in this accident, who were left unnamed in the awarding, were nominated for the “Darwin Award” in 1994.
Daniel L. Keath died on December 1st, 1995, at the age of 61.