Stolen plane that crashed in Peterborough in August was not airworthy

Inexperienced pilot likely unaware fuel tank vents had been blocked by owner

A Piper PA-38-112 Tomahawk aircraft stolen on August 12, 2016 crashed in Peterborough, killing the pilot (photo: CTV News/YouTube)
A Piper PA-38-112 Tomahawk aircraft stolen on August 12, 2016 crashed in Peterborough, killing the pilot (photo: CTV News/YouTube)

A recent update from Transport Canada points to the likely reason why a small plane stolen by a young man from Markham crashed in Peterborough on August 12, 2016.

Mohammad Hassan Chaudhary stole the Piper PA-38-112 aircraft from the Markham airport shortly after 1 a.m. on Friday, August 12th. His motive for stealing the aircraft remains unknown, although his family has said Chaudhary was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2014.

Around 40 minutes after takeoff, Chaudhary attempted a forced landing on Lansdowne Street at High Street in Peterborough, close to the Lansdowne Mall. The aircraft’s left wing struck a metal traffic light pole and part of the outer wing was sheared off. The plane then continued across the intersection and struck a second traffic light pole that collapsed on top of the aircraft cabin.

Originally designed for flight training, touring, and personal use, the Piper Tomahawk was built from 1977 to 1982 (photo: Wikipedia)
Originally designed for flight training, touring, and personal use, the Piper Tomahawk was built from 1977 to 1982 (photo: Wikipedia)

Although there were no injuries on the ground, Chaudhary was fatally injured and, according to witnesses, died while still strapped in the cockpit before emergency services arrived.

Chaudhary was not a licensed pilot and had not received any formal flight training, according to his family. A September 8th update in Transport Canada’s Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System (CADORS) implies that this lack of experience, when combined with the condition of the aircraft, is the most likely reason the plane crashed.

The Piper aircraft belonged to Donald Peck of Newmarket, who had purchased it in 2008. The plane had not been flown for several years and Peck was in the process of returning it to an airworthy condition.

While storing the aircraft at the Markham Airport, Peck had protected it against insect entry by plugging several openings on the engine and airframe. This included the two fuel tank vents located under each wing, which were each blocked by a clear plastic tube with a bolt inserted at the open end of the tube.

The cockpit of the Piper Tomahawk: the fuel gauge, fuel selector, and engine throttle are all mounted on the centre console (photo: Frederik Rasmussen / YouTube)
The cockpit of the Piper Tomahawk: the fuel gauge, fuel selector, and engine throttle are all mounted on the centre console (photo: Frederik Rasmussen / YouTube)

A fuel vent is critical to the operation of an aircraft’s engine. When the engine is running, fuel is pumped from the fuel tank and replaced by air drawn in through the fuel vent. If the fuel vent is blocked, a vacuum will gradually build up in the fuel tank, eventually overpowering the fuel pump’s ability to feed gas to the engine, and the engine will die from lack of fuel — even if the fuel gauges in the cockpit show there is plenty of fuel.

As part of the pre-flight checklist, an experienced pilot will always check the fuel tank vent, because a blocked vent is an insidious failure. Because of his lack of flying experience, Chaudhary would have been unaware the fuel vents were blocked when he stole the aircraft.

A plane can fly for a considerable period of time with a blocked vent before the engine fails to due fuel starvation. This is most likely what happened when Chaudhary was flying the aircraft and why he attempted to land the plane.

20-year-old Mohammad Hassan Chaudhary of Markham has been identified as the pilot of the stolen plane that crashed in Peterborough. The RCMP have concluded there was no national security issue involved in the crime. (Photo: Chaudhary family)
20-year-old Mohammad Hassan Chaudhary of Markham has been identified as the pilot of the stolen plane that crashed in Peterborough. The RCMP have concluded there was no national security issue involved in the crime. (Photo: Chaudhary family)

While the police investigation into the plane’s theft is ongoing, the RCMP have already concluded Chaudhary’s theft of the plane was not a national security matter.

However, the theft has resulted in increased scrutiny of the security of small airports. The Markham Airport from where the plane was stolen only has fences around a portion of the airport, a limited security camera system, and most aircraft are only secured with ropes. The August theft is the first time a plane has been stolen from the facility since it opened more than 50 years ago.

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