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Preliminary report on fatal Mandan plane crash includes witness observation

Preliminary report on fatal Mandan plane crash includes witness observation

Mandan Municipal Airport (copy)

An aerial view of Mandan Municipal Airport, which sits on 400 acres.

Federal officials investigating a fatal plane crash at the Mandan airport earlier this month say a witness noticed before takeoff that a seat belt was securing the small plane’s rear control stick.

The preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board does not speculate on whether that might have contributed to the June 13 crash, but aviation experts say the setup would have been problematic if the pilot didn’t address it.

Joel Pfliger, 57, a Stanton-area farmer and former gas plant worker, died when his homebuilt plane crashed after takeoff that Saturday afternoon. He was flying home, in clear conditions, according to the report.

The Van's RV-8 plane burned and was destroyed, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The plane is a two-seat, single-engine aircraft made for aerobatics that is built from a kit, according to the Van's Aircraft website. Pfliger was alone in the plane and died at the scene.

The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation into the crash. The agency recently issued its preliminary report, which is essentially a statement of facts about the crash. A final report that will include details about the suspected cause will come later. Such investigations typically take months and sometimes years.

The preliminary report states that “a witness observed the airplane on the ramp prior to the flight and advised the pilot that the rear seat belt was securing the rear control stick. The pilot subsequently departed in the airplane ... and the airplane subsequently had a steep climb. The airplane descended, impacted terrain, and a ground fire occurred.”

Securing a control stick with a seat belt in such planes is not uncommon.

“Some airplanes have control locks that lock the flight controls in place when the plane is parked in order to prevent wind damage. In some airplanes that lack control locks, it is common to use the seat belts to hold the flight controls in place for this purpose,” University of North Dakota professor and Aviation Department Chairman Brett Venhuizen told the Tribune. “The control lock, or the seat belt if used as a control lock, must be removed/released prior to flight.”

The NTSB report does not answer if Pfliger did so, and the report states "webbing for the seat belts was not identified in the charred cockpit."

The report does not identify the witness. Mandan Municipal Airport Manager Jim Lawler said he did not know who it was. Lawler said it was not him, and that about a dozen people work at the facility.

The Van's RV-8 has a front seat and a rear seat, with a set of controls that can be operated from either seat.

“If you were to depart with the rear control stick secured like that, that would cause an accident,” said Torin Walhood, a UND-trained airline pilot who also has worked as a flight instructor.

Pfliger was an experienced pilot -- he had been flying for about two dozen years and "flew constantly," according to an obituary published by the family. Family did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the NTSB report.

(Reporters Travis Svihovec and Diane Newberry contributed to this story.)



Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or


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