An Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) report into the air crash at Dunkeswell Airfield near Churchinford last November said the accident may have been caused by the pilot trying to manually start a landing descent while the autopilot was still on.
The crash resulted in the deaths of the pilot, Philip Garvey 56, his wife Ann 55, their daughter Emily 23 and son Daniel 20. The investigation found that the aircraft – a six-seater Piper Malibu Mirage – piloted by Mr Garvey went into a sudden climb into cloud as it approached the airfield before going into a steep dive and smashing into the ground. The weather was poor at the time and the cloud cover was low.
The family were due to collect their daughter Charlotte whose husband is a Housemaster and teacher at Wellington School before flying on to visit another member of their family.
The report into the crash said: “The evidence from the autopilot examination system suggested that, as the pilot turned onto the final approach and started to descend, the autopilot may not have been disengaged due to a mental lapse, incorrect button selection or a technical fault.”
It concluded: “The investigation was unable to determine with certainty the reason for the initial rapid climb. However, it was considered possible that the pilot had initiated the preceding descent by overriding the autopilot.
“This would have caused the autopilot to trim nose-up, increasing the force against the pilot’s manual input. Such an out-of-trim condition, combined with entry into cloud could have contributed to an unintentional and disorientating pitch-up manoeuvre.”
While the aircraft would still have been controllable, the report said, recovery “may have been beyond [the pilot’s] capabilities.”
The report found that Mr Garvey had been a pilot since 2012 and had bought the aircraft – his second – in the summer of 2013. He had flown to Dunkeswell 25 times since September 2013.
Several witnesses told the AAIB that they heard a sound like a plane doing “aerobatics” before the aircraft reappeared and hit the ground.
Giving evidence to the AAIB, instructors said they found Mr Garvey good at “doing things by numbers” but said he was “less able than average pilots at multi-tasking and poor at prioritising, especially when under pressure”. One instructor was quoted in the report as saying Mr Garvey “would often have difficulty in dealing with an unusual or unexpected condition”.
Relatives of the family said at the time they were “all utterly heartbroken” following the tragedy.