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Plane's wreckage puzzles investigators

Clues hint at mid-air collision with 'unknown object'

By Mike Ahlers
CNN Washington Bureau

Moira Wade tapes flowers to a pole that marks where the cockpit of her brother's plane was found after it crashed in 2002.
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Authorities are still puzzled as to why the plane crashed.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
Transportation Accidents

SPANISH FORT, Alabama (CNN) -- Moira Wade hitches her boat to a plastic pole stuck in the "puff mud" of Big Bateau Bay.

Then, in what has become a ritual, she tends to a makeshift memorial to her brother. She tapes artificial flowers on the pole, polishes a solar-powered lantern, and opts not to replace the framed photograph of Tommy. The sun still hasn't faded the old photo.

"I have to come out here," she says, her New York accent deeply out of place in this Alabama marsh. "I feel at peace when I'm here. And when I am not here, all I can think about is being here."

It is here where Wade's brother -- 54-year-old cargo plane pilot Thomas J. Preziose -- plunged to his death the evening of October 23, 2002. The pole marks the spot where the cockpit was found; the place where his remains were recovered.

Preziose's crash, like almost all air crashes, contained elements of mystery from the start. But accident investigators will tell you that this crash is more confounding than most.

Here are the most intriguing aspects:

-- Investigators found red streaks -- transfer marks, they call them -- on various pieces of the shredded Cessna pulled from the muck. The red does not match red mail bags or other objects known to be on the plane.

-- Investigators also found a small piece of black anodized aluminum embedded in the skin of Preziose's plane. The aluminum is not from the accident airplane.

Those facts led National Transportation Safety Board accident investigator Butch Wilson to conclude the Preziose's Cessna 208B Caravan "collided in-flight with an unknown object."

That statement, part of an interim report released last month, has heightened speculation among local pilots, aviation buffs and conspiracy theorists about the demise of Night Ship 282, the call sign for the Preziose's flight.

Theories abound. Some believe Night Ship 282 collided with a drug runner's plane, the loss of which might go unreported. Some wonder if Night Ship 282 was pelted by a meteor or space junk. Others think it collided with a military drone run amok, or perhaps was hit by a missile.

Preziose's Cessna 208B Caravan

Some even suggest the plane was struck by terrorists, perhaps aiming at a larger plane nearby.

NTSB officials are not embracing their investigator's statement that Night Ship 282 "collided ... with an unknown object." They say the statement is analytical in nature, and does not belong in the factual report.

But neither are they running away from the possibility of a mid-air collision.

Instead, prompted by the factual report and by the interest it is generating, they have taken the unusual step this month of reclaiming the aircraft wreckage from the insurance company and shipped it to the Washington area for a closer inspection.

Still, investigators are reluctant to suggest that any theory looks more promising than another.

"I don't see a scenario that fits everything yet," said one source close to the investigation. "I think that's where we're at right now. As far as I'm concerned, nothing's ruled out. There's no reason to rule anything out. Everything's on the table right now."

The pilot

The wreckage was scattered over 200 yards.

Moira Wade describes her brother as fun-loving and gregarious, with an almost lifelong love of flying.

Born in the Bronx, the oldest of six children, Preziose started flying in the military, and wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Instead, he became an Army helicopter medic, serving in Vietnam.

Back home, he joined the New York Police Department, serving for 23 years before retiring in 1994. When the World Trade Center was attacked years later, he returned to the city and spent three weeks "digging people out," his sister says.

After his retirement from the force, Preziose held several jobs and ambitions, eventually landing as a simulator instructor, teaching pilots how to fly the Cessna Caravan.

But flying real planes, not simulators, was in Preziose's blood, according to his sister. And in July 2002, Preziose got a job with Mid-Atlantic Freight, flying a Cessna Caravan on a nightly cargo run from Mobile to Montgomery, Alabama, and Atlanta.

The flight

Preziose's flight took off from Mobile Downtown Airport.

At 7:40 p.m. -- four months into his new job -- Preziose set off on a run. He was carrying 420 pounds of cargo for DHL, including a shipment of baseball hats.

It was dark and overcast, and there was light precipitation in the area, forcing Preziose to use his instruments.

Before departing from Mobile Downtown Airport, Preziose asked controllers at what altitude he would encounter freezing temperatures, saying he wanted to fly at 9,000 feet "because the radar's out." That comment -- some say -- indicates the plane's weather radar was not operating.

Controllers told him the freezing level was 11,500 feet -- well above his intended cruising altitude.

Preziose departed headed directly north, and controllers directed him to climb to 3,000 feet and turn right, towards the east. The controller also advised him that an inbound DC-10 aircraft was flying south at 4,000 feet.

A minute later, the controller told Preziose that the DC-10 was two miles away at the "one o'clock" position, suggesting that the large aircraft had passed him and was slightly to his right. But a post-accident analysis of radar data suggests that that was incorrect. The plane was still to Preziose's left.

Whatever the problem was, Preziose evidently saw the large plane. "Roger," he replied, "I got him above me right now."

At about the time he was speaking those words, Preziose's plane began a fairly rapid, but apparently controlled, descent. In the next 14 seconds, his plane dropped from 2,900 feet to 2,400 feet. It was then that Preziose made what was to be his last radio transmission: "I needed to deviate, I needed to deviate, I needed to deviate, I needed ... "

His plane began an uncontrolled descent into the swamp.

Preziose's last flight lasted about four minutes. A frog hunter in an airboat, pressed into service by rescuers, found the aircraft that night.

The investigation
A crushed piece of airplane skin shows red marks that have confounded investigators.

Preziose's Cessna was shredded; its parts scattered randomly over an area of about 200 yards. Its instruments were so damaged they did not provide any useful information. The autopsy didn't provide clues, either. Tissue samples revealed no sign of alcohol or drugs.

Early in the investigation, investigators noticed the red marks.

The marks were on many pieces of the airframe, concentrated on the skin of the plane forward of the main landing gear on the pilot's side of the plane, but also on other places on the plane.

Curiously, red marks were even found inside the nose landing gear wheel, which had been stripped of its tire.

The NTSB sent two pieces of airplane skin containing red marks to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio for analysis. But when the marks were compared to material from red cargo bags and a red Pitot tube covering, they were found to be "significantly different," the NTSB said.

The NTSB also obtained a piece of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle from the U.S. Air Force. It also did not match.

Since the DC-10 -- a FedEx plane -- was in the vicinity, it became the obvious subject of suspicion. But a walk-around examination of the jet showed "no damage to the exterior of the aircraft," the NTSB report says.

Radar data also indicate the planes did not collide, showing the two planes never came closer than 1,000 feet in altitude or a mile horizontally and "never crossed paths," the report reads.

The speculation

Investigators found a small piece of aluminum embedded in a piece of the wreckage. They concluded that the piece was not part of Preziose's plane.

"There's all sorts of speculation about what's happened to that airplane," said Michael Griffin, a flight instructor who regularly flies out of Mobile Downtown Airport.

"This is pure speculation on my part but this is a big drug trafficking area and it wouldn't surprise me at all (if Preziose was struck by a drug runner). He did make announcements that he needed to turn. ... He was probably panicked. He saw something that shouldn't have been there."

Or Preziose could have hit another plane "lost in the soup," he said.

Others, including Don Godwin, CEO of Mid-Atlantic Freight, the company Preziose was working for, dismiss those theories.

"If there had been another airplane, I feel certain there would have been pieces of another airplane at the crash site."

Godwin is captivated by the fact that the plane's engine broke in two main pieces.

"That's a big deal right there to me," Godwin said. "I think most everybody is convinced that that happened prior to the impact."

As for the cause? "The only thing that would come to my mind would be a high-speed drone," he says.

Or maybe a missile. "I believe whatever hit it flew right through it and probably ended up in the Gulf of Mexico someplace or somewhere in that bay," he said.

But investigators say they have not yet concluded that the engine broke up in air, and say that is still the subject of inquiry.
The mangled pilot's seat of Preziose's plane was found among the wreckage.

And military officials at Tyndall Air Force base, about 140 miles from the marsh where the plane crashed, are convinced that drones -- which are launched from the base -- had nothing to do with the downing of Night Ship 282.

The base did not launch any drones the evening of October 23, 2002, says Lt. Col. Jerry Kerby, commander of the 82 Aerial Targets Squadron at Tyndall, located on the Florida panhandle.

In addition, a drone launched from Tyndall could not hit the Alabama delta, Kerby said.

"It's not technically possible for us to get a drone that far west mainly because we will lose control, we will lose an uplink with that drone. If we lose an uplink or any kind of communications with that drone, the drone will command itself to shut its engine down and put itself in a parachute where it will float down into the Gulf of Mexico."

Another theory is that wake turbulence -- the tornado-like winds that spin off a planes' wings and can cause havoc with aircraft that cross their path -- might be to blame. It is particularly dangerous when a small plane crosses into turbulence created by a larger aircraft.

The pilot's last words

Thomas Preziose

There is also speculation about the pilot's last words, "I needed to deviate."

To his sister, the meaning of the words couldn't be clearer.

"Knowing Tommy, he wanted to try to make people understand that something was going on that was unusual and so [at the] last second he grabbed hold of the mic and transmitted that information.

"And that is why he was saying, 'I see something coming at me and I know I am going to die and I want you to know what happened to me,'" Wade said.

Preziose's employer has a slightly different take. "I think he was talking to himself," said Godwin.

Godwin says he believes Preziose may have seen something about to hit the plane, pressed the microphone switch on the plane's control and said the words, meaning "I should have deviated."

Attorney Breedlove believes that Preziose, either fearing the effects of wake turbulence or actually suffering its effects, is telling the air traffic controllers that they should have steered him away from the course he was on.

And there are other interpretations. Some close to the investigation say that Preziose may have been acknowledging that he should have deviated his flight path because of foul weather.

One recent bit of speculation seeks to address those red markings. When the plane parts were pulled from the marsh, they were placed on a barge. The barge was red, several sources said.

But an NTSB spokesman said the investigator remembered seeing the marks on at least some of the wreckage before it was placed on the barge. In an effort to make sense of the marks, investigators plan to map the marks on a mock-up of the plane.

Back at the marsh
Preziose's plane crashed into Big Bateau Bay, off the coast of Alabama.

After tending to the memorial, Moira Wade picks up a long metal pole and probes the water and the mud beneath it. When she hits an object, the pole "tings" and she uses a rake to lift it to the surface.

"Oyster," she says, discouraged.

She then moves her boat, probing the mud only four feet from her memorial to her brother.

This time, her probing pays off. She lifts to the surface an object covered with mud and weeds, and dips it in the water to clean it.

"I think it is aluminum," she says. "I think this is from the engine. I am not sure. See it has a part number on it. Every piece has a part number. It looks like there has been some heat here. So it could be the heat from the engine."

She puts the piece aside, with plans to give it to the NTSB. She has complete confidence that they will be able to solve this mystery.

Resuming her search, she probes the mud again and brings up a mud clump. Rinsing it, she reveals several baseball hats.

"Oh," she says. "This is his cargo."

Even after NTSB investigators left Mobile soon after the accident, Preziose's sister and husband have soldiered on. Assisted by friends and volunteers who manned airplanes, helicopters and boats, the Wades spent 15 days at the site in the late fall of 2002, and have returned numerous times to continue their search for evidence.

To date, they have recovered about 700 pounds of wreckage that was not found during the initial search, including two blades of the propeller.

And the search continues. The Wades hope not only to find more pieces to Preziose's Cessna, but also to some other object, be it drone, UAV, missile or drug runner plane.

Part of her sense of responsibility comes from the fact that she is his sister. Part comes from the fact that she, like her brother, is a pilot. She flies Boeing 727s commercially.

"It is kind of like a duty among airmen to take care of each other and I am trying to oversee, to make sure that my brother gets a fair shake and that they just don't blame it on him, because they can't come up with any other [explanation]. I just want it to be factual so that when this man died, the truth of how he died will be known," Wade says.

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