NTSB Blames Engine Issues For Crash That Killed Ted Christopher

Ted Christopher following his SK Modified victory on Sept. 10, 2017 at Thompson Speedway, the final victory of his career (Photo: Shawn Courchesne/RaceDayCT)

The National Transportation Safety Board released its final report Tuesday on the crash that killed legendary short track racer Ted Christopher on Sept. 16, 2017. 

In its final determination the NTSB found that the probable cause for the crash was:  “A total loss of engine power due to fuel starvation as the result of foreign object debris in the fuel selector valve. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s selection of a low cruising altitude, which reduced the available time to troubleshoot the loss of engine power and afforded fewer forced landing site options, and improper maintenance of the airplane, which allowed a portion of a shop towel into the fuel system.” 

It was reported in October that the pilot of the plane was not certified to fly at the time of the crash because of medical conditions dating back more than a decade.

Pilot Patrick Dundas, who was 81 at the time of the crash, had his flight certification denied by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2007 according to the Aviation Accident Factual Report released in October by the NTSB. 

Christopher was killed along with Dundas when the single engine 1964 Mooney M20C they were traveling in crashed in North Branford. Christopher was 59 years old at the time of the crash. 

In the NTSB final analysis it was determined that Dundas’ medical issues did not contribute to the crash. 

The NTSB final analysis reads as such below: 

The airline transport pilot, who was the owner of the airplane, and one passenger departed on a day visual flight rules cross-country flight. The airplane came to rest in a wooded area near an open field about 24 miles from the departure airport. The pilot was not in contact with air traffic control during the flight. Review of radar information revealed radar targets that were coincident with the accident flight on a south-southeast track at altitudes between 900 and 1,300 ft above ground level until radar contact was lost about 1 mile northwest of the accident site. Several individuals near the accident site reported that they heard the sound of the impact, but there were no witnesses to the accident. The propeller exhibited signatures consistent with a lack of engine power at the time of impact. The fuel selector was found in the left tank position and the landing gear was extended. There was evidence of fuel in both tanks at the accident site.

Examination of the fuel system revealed that air would not pass through the fuel selector valve with the valve selected to the left fuel tank position. The handle was operated by hand and could be moved normally between the settings. Air passed freely through the valve when selected to the right tank position. Disassembly of the fuel selector revealed a piece of red, fibrous material consistent with a shop towel that likely inhibited fuel flow to the engine and resulted in fuel starvation and a total loss of engine power. The airplane’s maintenance logs were not found and when the shop towel debris may have been introduced to the fuel system could not be determined. Additionally, a homemade tool constructed of PVC pipe and connection fittings was found in the wreckage that appeared to be designed to manipulate the fuel selector; however, the reason for its fabrication and use during the accident flight could not be determined. The device was broken at its handle.

Following the loss of engine power, the pilot may have attempted to switch the fuel selector from the left tank to the right tank and was unable to do so, either due to a failure of his homemade tool or to the inadequate time afforded to troubleshoot the loss of engine power due to his selection of a low cruising altitude, or a combination of the two factors. The airplane’s low cruising altitude also reduced the pilot’s available forced landing site options after the engine lost power. It is likely that the pilot was attempting to reach an open field that was about 1,500 ft beyond the accident site and had lowered the landing gear in preparation for landing, but due to the airplane’s low altitude, it was unable to reach the field and impacted trees.

The pilot’s medical certificate was denied nearly 10 years before the accident and never re-issued. Autopsy identified severe cardiac disease, which placed the pilot at risk for sudden symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations, or fainting; however, it is not likely that this condition contributed to the accident.

Christopher was travelling from Robertson Field Airport in Plainville, Connecticut and was destined for Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, New York. Christopher was scheduled to compete in a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour event at Riverhead (N.Y.) Raceway that evening. 

Dundas had a history heart issues that first put restrictions on his flying in 2002 and ultimately were the cause for his medical certificate to fly to be declined in 2007 by the FAA. 

According to the NTSB report:

“The pilot had previously reported hypertension and ischemic cardiomyopathy due to severe coronary artery disease that had been treated with three-vessel coronary artery bypass grafting in 2001. He had obtained a special issuance medical certificate beginning in 2002 and had reported using various medications over the years. No other abnormalities were identified on the physical exam and the pilot was initially issued a second-class medical certificate limited by a requirement to wear corrective lenses and specifying, “Limited second class/Full third class privileges; Not valid for carrying passengers or cargo for compensation except if serving as pilot of fully qualified 2-pilot crew; Not valid for any class after 10/31/2007.” The pilot subsequently had an internal defibrillator placed and his medical certificate was denied in December 2007.” 

Dundas had his Airline Transport Pilot certificate (ATP rated), which is the highest level of aircraft pilot certificate in the United States 

According to the report issues were found with the selector valve that would allow switching between the left and right fuel tanks. A mass of reddish fibers consistent with cotton shop towels was found in the fuel selector valve.

According to the NTSB report: 

“The fuel selector valve was removed from the airframe and air pressure applied to the valve fuel outlet port. Air did not pass through the selector valve when the handle was in the position marked “LEFT.” The handle was moved to the “OFF” position, then back to the “LEFT” position, and it remained blocked. Air did not pass through the valve when the actuator handle was placed in the position marked “OFF” or in the rearward, unmarked position. Air passed freely when the handle was placed in the position marked “RIGHT.” When the handle was returned to the position marked “LEFT,” no air passed through the selector valve. The selector handle moved normally with no unusual resistance between the settings.

“The valve was disassembled and a spongy mass of reddish fibers consistent in appearance with red cotton shop towel fibers were observed in the selector cavity. The rounded mass was about 5/8 inches in length and about 3/8 inches in width. Fibers also covered about 5% of the fuel drain screen.” 

Investigators also found a makeshift tool at the crash scene seemingly fabricated to switch the fuel tank selector knob during flight. 

According to the NTSB report: 

“A section of PVC similar to plumbing or electrical conduit was discovered in the wreckage. It was made up of five individually-threaded, male-to-female connections which, when threaded together, measured about 9 inches long. On the top of the device was a PVC pipe in the shape of a handle. The entire device was in three separate pieces when discovered; the top of the t-handle was broken from the device and the bottom section was unscrewed. On each side of the handle was a label indicating “LEFT” and “RIGHT.” The top of the handle was labeled “FUEL.” On the bottom of the T-handle connection, the vertical pipe appeared to be hand carved/shaved so that it would fit into the top section of the devise There was a 3/4-inch notch cut out on the bottom of the device. When the device was reassembled during the examination, it fit into the airplane fuel selector handle, and appeared to be designed to switch the fuel tanks; however, the reason for its fabrication and use was unknown.” 

According to the report the plane’s first point of impact was in 75-foot tall pine trees in a nose-down attitude with a wreckage path 175 feet long. There was an open field about 1,500 feet north of the crash site. The landing gear had been extended at the time of the crash. 

Christopher was known as one of the leading and most diverse short track drivers in America over two decades. He was also known for a confident bravado like few others in the local short track racing scene. In the ranks of New England Modified racing he was most commonly referred to by two monikers, either simply “TC” or “The King”. He was the 2001 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national short track champion. He also won the 2008 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship.

Christopher was the all-time winningest driver at both Stafford Motor Speedway and Thompson Speedway. He was also a longtime regular competitor at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl.

At Stafford Motor Speedway he competed weekly in the track’s premier division, the SK Modifieds. He had a division leading six victories this year, with his last win coming on Sept. 8. He finished fourth in the SK Modified feature Friday at Stafford.

He had 109 career SK Modified victories at Stafford Speedway and nine championships in the division. Overall he had 131 victories at the track overall since 1986. His next closet competitor on the all-time wins list at the track was Woody Pitkat with 77 victories.

At Thompson Speedway he had won one of two SK Modified features at the track in the last event there on Sept. 10. It was his 99th victory overall at the facility. At the New London-Waterford Speedbowl he had 48 career victories.

He was the third winningest driver of all-time on the Whelen Modified Tour with 42 career victories in 372 starts dating back to the 1987 season.

Christopher long had a reputation for racing anything anytime. From local Midgets divisions, to SuperModifieds, to indoor events in Three-Quarter Midgets to competing twice at the top level of Sports Car racing at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He had made six career starts in NASCAR’s top-level Monster Energy Cup Series. He had 21 career starts in NASCAR’s second level Xfinity Series. In NASCAR’s regional K&N Pro Series East he had 10 career victories in 92 starts from 1990 to 2008.

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  1. I can’t believe something so stupid was the reason we lost T.C.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Al Hoekstra says

    Just senseless, sad and very heartbreaking that this even happened. 1,500 feet to a field ? Well I guess god needed him home . 2 lives that could had been saved . I am sure if Teddy knew those issues with stuff being done to the plane he would had never got on it…will always miss him slapping me on the back and talking to my daughters and loving the fans …still sucks to be honest

  3. We could what if it all day long. What if Silk didn’t leave the 82. What if TC drove to the track with the team. What if he had a younger pilot. As much as it still hurts it’s God’s plan I suppose. Same with Stefanik. Almost made it back to the open field. I think we all knew this was an engine issue unfortunately. Regardless of fault or blame. It’s very TC to be flying with a rogue pilot so to speak who may have been breaking some rules. Just remember the good times. That’s all we have left. Feel free to share your best TC story. We could all use a laugh today.

  4. That’s allot to digest. It’s good to finally have answers, but angering at what the answers were. 2 men lost their lives that day, over something that was 100% avoidable. But now we know why and can finally put closure to the matter. Hopefully the findings will lead to better oversight of small aircraft, and ultimately prevent this from happening to others.

  5. A shame no matter how you look at it. Unfortunately the stars aligned in a bad way on that day.

  6. The sadness of T.C.’s loss has never left us . I enjoyed countless hours of “The King’s” hard charging racing .

  7. There’s no greater meaning in the last flight. He’d flown with the guy a really long time, it was just another occasion and it ended tragically.
    My greatest memory and one the would still be talked about were the guy not to have had his life cut short was his attempt to duke in out with Pennink after the SK race at Stafford. Pushing 60, uncountable races under his belt, no need to prove anything to anybody and he’s starting a fight in victory lane. Come on man that was epic.

  8. What was the story with TC and Smoke and the porta potty in New Smyrna. Someone tipped someone over in it.

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