Gaithersburg plane crash. Credit: Pete Piringer, MCFRS spokesperson.

A new National Transportation Safety Board report, investigating the Nov.27 crash of a small plane into a transmission tower in Gaithersburg, found the pilot did not follow instruction provided by air traffic control.

The report stated that the pilot, Patrick Merkle, 66, told a 911 dispatcher, he was finding it difficult to navigate the plane because of the dark and foggy weather conditions. WTOP initially reported the NTSB findings.

Merkle was flying his plane in “dark night instrument meteorological conditions” with only 1.25 miles of visibility in fog conditions, according to the NTSB report.

“I got down a little lower than I should have… I thought I was closer to the airport than I was…We could see the ground, but we couldn’t see in front,” Merkle said, according to the report.

According to the report, air traffic control advised the pilot to make a specific approach to the airport because of weather conditions, but Merkle stated he wished to make a different approach, which air traffic control cleared.

However, Merkle made multiple incorrect turns during the approach, and “made a series of left and right turns, near course reversals, or continued established headings as the controller repeatedly requested that the pilot turn to a different heading,” the NTSB report said.


According to NTSB’s report, around the same time, another airplane on approach to the airport requested a diversion to another airport because of the reduced visibility.

After air traffic officials gave Merkle the go-ahead for an approach to the runaway, he began the approach at around 2,775 feet and started descending, despite the required minimum altitude for the approach being about 3,000 feet.

This led to the single-engine Mooney M20J plane to strike power lines and become embedded in the structure of a transmission tower near Rothbury Drive and Goshen Road in Gaithersburg, about 1.25 miles from the runway and left of the runway centerline, the report stated.


The crash into power lines also caused thousands of homes in the area to be without power for several hours, according to utility provider, the Potomac Electric Power Company.