NTSB Report on Barnes Plane Crash Inconclusive About Cause

Aug. 11, 2022

Aug. 11—Nearly two years after Stephen E. Barnes' airplane crashed in a Genesee County field, killing the prominent attorney and his niece, it is still unknown whether the crash was due to pilot error, a mechanical problem or a combination of the two.

A preliminary report released Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board did not cite a cause of the crash but made clear the plane went down suddenly — and at a tremendous rate of speed.

Less than two minutes after Barnes told an air traffic controller "everything's fine" as he headed toward Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the plane took a sharp right turn and hurtled to the ground in a corkscrew-type pattern known as a "spiral dive," the NTSB report stated.

As it plunged from the sky, the aircraft's speed was "increasing far above the maximum operating speed, a combination that can overstress the airplane," according to an NTSB memo posted online.

Witnesses in the town of Corfu told federal investigators the noise resembled a "crotch rocket" motorcycle or even a bomb. By the time investigators arrived, parts of the heavily damaged plane were buried 15 feet into the ground.

"The aircraft was quite damaged," said Robert J. Schreck, managing attorney of the Barnes Firm. "There wasn't a lot left of the aircraft."

The seven-page NTSB "factual report," which was supplemented by more than 100 pages of photos, memos, medical information and witness statements, gave a fuller picture of the October 2020 crash than a three-page initial report released weeks after the accident.

"It's very detailed," Schreck said, speaking on behalf of the law firm and Steve Barnes' brother, Richard J. Barnes, whose daughter, Elizabeth, was killed in the crash. "They left no stone unturned and they looked at everything they could look at. But there's no conclusions."

Those will likely come in the agency's final report, which is expected to be released in the next few months. Already, though, there are hints of disagreement about what caused the fatal crash.

"We categorically believe that this crash had nothing to do with pilot error, that it was some type of mechanical failure within the aircraft," Schreck said. "Something went dramatically wrong, which is inconsistent with the kind of pilot Steve was. He was a Marine. He was very diligent in his prep whenever he went on a flight."

Indeed, the NTSB documents show that Barnes was up to date on his flying classes, regularly serviced the plane and had a full tank of gas when he left New Hampshire to fly back to Buffalo.

Toxicology reports released by the NTSB also showed Barnes had no drugs or alcohol in his system while he was piloting the plane.

But John Cox, a former pilot who now heads Safety Operating Systems, a Washington, D.C., aviation consultancy, said the high rate of speed — the report said Barnes' plane was traveling at 28,400 feet per minute before impact — during a downward spiral raises questions about whether pilot error is a factor.

"It's actually hard to get the airplane to come down that fast," Cox said. "The indications are a distinct possibility, if not probability, of this loss of control event being pilot-induced, but it's not conclusive yet."

'Totally out of control'

The crash happened about 11:45 a.m. Oct. 2, 2020, in a heavily wooded and swampy area north of Genesee Street, about a mile west of Boyce Road, in Pembroke, about 15 miles east of Buffalo International Airport. Stephen Barnes and his niece, attorney Elizabeth Barnes, were flying in his Socata TBM 700 back to Buffalo from New Hampshire and were on their way to a birthday party for his mother.

Aviation experts told The Buffalo News at the time the preliminary report was released that Barnes' plane was "totally out of control" and experiencing an unusually high rate of descent.

The plane, a single-engine, propeller-driver aircraft manufactured in 2009, was descending at a rate of 13,800 feet per minute at the time the aircraft was at an altitude of 15,200 feet, according to the preliminary report.

The normal rate of descent for that aircraft is 2,000 to 3,000 feet per minute, an expert told The News.

SD cards inconclusive

NTSB investigators were unable to recover any flight data from the wreckage of the crash, the agency said in documents released Wednesday.

Investigators recovered six SD cards, five of which did not contain any flight data. The sixth card was cracked and could not be read, though it may not have been the card that would have contained flight data from the aircraft, investigators reported.

"It's disappointing," Schreck said. "We'd love to have that information."

Barnes had been out of contact with air traffic control for a portion of the flight. After regaining contact the controller asked Barnes if everything was all right.

"Yes, sir," Barnes said. "Everything's fine."

That was his last clear communication with the tower. Less than two minutes later, the air traffic controller noticed the plane veering right and asked Barnes where he was headed.

Barnes' response was "garbled," the report stated, and sounded like "hi" or "aye." Less than two minutes later, the plane lost radar contact with the tower and crashed.

Barnes co-founded the Cellino & Barnes law firm, a nationally known firm that had lawyers in five offices in the state: in Buffalo, Rochester, New York City, Melville and Garden City. Barnes and Ross Cellino Jr. were about to officially end their professional relationship when the crash occurred.

Because smaller planes like Barnes' Socata TBM 700 are not equipped with the type of "black boxes" found on commercial airliners, there is a chance the NTSB's final report will not definitively answer what led the plane to crash.


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