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What NTSB preliminary report reveals about fatal Dawson Forest plane crash
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A single-engine airplane recently plummeted into a wooded part of the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area, killing its pilot, stated a National Transportation Safety Board Jan. 25 preliminary report.

The plane’s pilot was identified as Clint Clifton, Dawson County Deputy Coroner Wesley Bearden told DCN on Jan. 25.

The NTSB will not release the accident’s likely cause until after the conclusion of a final investigation report, which could take up to 24 months to complete, said NTSB investigator-in-charge Adam Gerhardt.

A final report will come only after an analysis of facts and a determination of the probable cause, the federal investigator added.

Clifton, the plane’s sole occupant, died after his Piper-PA-28-180 aircraft crashed Thursday, Jan. 12 at about 8:17 p.m. in Dawson County, according to the NTSB preliminary report. 

Clifton, 43, served with the North American Mission Board, traveling to different locations to help start churches, according to a recent article from “The Gospel Coalition” honoring his legacy. 

Clifton’s plane departed his home airport, Stafford Regional Airport in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on Jan. 6 en route to Concord-Padgett Regional Airport in western North Carolina.

The pilot arrived at the North Carolina location and departed for Canton Regional Airport (CNI) in Georgia on Jan. 8.

The trip’s purpose was for work meetings, the preliminary report stated. 

According to Canton airport personnel, about 4 p.m. on the day of the accident, the pilot requested the plane be fueled, but staff did not do so due to heavy rain and lightning.

Personnel reported talking to the pilot about his plan to take off in poor weather and fly at night.

“After the rain passes, it should be fine right?” Clifton said, according to the report. 

Clifton told airport personnel he had an international flight departing Washington D.C. scheduled for the next day and wanted to leave the Canton airport “as soon as possible.”

Staff suggested he book a hotel overnight and gave Clifton a facility gate code in case he wanted to arrive at the airport before it was staffed the next morning. He then left in a rental car, the report stated. 

Airport records show Clifton returned to the airport at 7:54 p.m. and added via self-service 27 gallons of fuel to his airplane.

Preliminary flight data from the Federal Aviation Administration showed the airplane left the Canton facility at 8:05 p.m., where it then headed east-northeast while climbing for about 10 minutes, reaching a peak altitude of about 7,200 feet. 

In the final two minutes of the flight, the plane began to lose altitude. The aircraft made a “series of tight turns” before it started rapidly spiraling downward. 

According to the NTSB preliminary report, the airplane’s final position was recorded at 8:17:32 p.m., about .15 mile south of the accident site at an altitude of about 2,000 feet. 

A review of weather observations at the Canton airport showed that at 7:55 p.m. visibility was 10 miles, with scattered clouds at 700 feet and 7,500 feet and distant lightning to the northeast. 

By 8:15 p.m., visibility had decreased to 1 mile with nearby thunderstorms and mist, overcast conditions at 2,600 feet and distant lightning still to the northeast. 

The airplane crashed into wooded terrain about 14 miles north of the Canton airport. 

According to account data from flight software company ForeFlight, the most recent route of flight entered at 6:22 p.m. was for a direct route from the Canton to Stafford airports, the NTSB preliminary report stated. 

On Jan. 13, Clifton’s family contacted the FAA about a missing airplane, and an FAA alert notice was issued. 

Later that morning, first responders found the plane’s wreckage and the deceased in the southeastern part of the wildlife management area, about 1.5 miles west of the roundabouts at Dawson Forest Road and Ga. 9.

“The wreckage was highly fragmented and was located largely in one compact area,” the NTSB preliminary report stated. 

Preliminary FAA air traffic control records and FAA-contracted flight service revealed no known communication between the pilot and air traffic control, nor an open or on-file visual flight rules flight plan.

The wreckage was retained for further examination, according to the preliminary NTSB report.