DAYTONA BEACH — Metal fatigue created by frequent takeoffs and landings caused a wing to snap off a university's training plane last year, resulting in a crash that killed the student pilot and a flight examiner, federal inspectors said Wednesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board said in a report that the single-engine Piper Arrow owned by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University crashed April 4, 2018, after its left wing snapped off at 900 feet (274 meters). Pilot Zack Capra, a 25-year-old Navy veteran, was performing takeoffs and landings at Daytona Beach International Airport for Federal Aviation Administration examiner John Azma, 61. Both died when the fuselage slammed into a field 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from the airport, the left wing landing across a road.
The report said the 10-year-old plane had made 33,000 takeoffs in 7,700 hours of flight time — about one every 15 minutes. That's significantly more takeoffs than planes operated normally would have.
Inspectors concluded that flying at low altitudes almost exclusively put extra stress on the wings, creating cracks in the left wing's main spar, the support member that runs from the fuselage through the wing. Spars on Piper Arrows are usually inspected after 30,000 hours of flight under normal use, the report said.
Capra's father, John Charles Capra, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Piper Aircraft in March in Circuit Court in Volusia County, alleging Piper knew of structural failures in that model aircraft since 1987 but failed to warn pilots or require testing that could have detected problems and saved lives.
[READ: Father of student pilot sues Piper Aircraft after deadly crash]
School and Piper officials did not immediately return calls Wednesday seeking comment.
An ERAU spokeswoman said earlier this year that the university has stopped flying the Piper PA-28 Arrow.
Capra had completed one touch-and-go landing and was climbing away from the airport when the wing broke off and the plane spiraled into the ground, witnesses told investigators.
Inspections of the wreckage showed that the failed spar had significant fractures. A smaller crack was found on the right-wing spar, but it had not failed.
After the crash, the NTSB inspected 16 similar airplanes at four flight schools, including Embry-Riddle, that had service hours ranging from 2,700 to 10,000. One other Embry-Riddle plane had a crack, the report said, but the others did not.
Because of the NTSB's findings, the FAA may order inspections of spars on similar Pipers used for touch-and-go instruction.
Embry-Riddle's Daytona Beach campus has about 5,000 students, many of them training to become pilots while completing their bachelor degrees.