NTSB report released into Whitehall water tower plane crash

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A West Michigan pilot had an antidepressant and antihistamine that can induce drowsiness in his system when witnesses say his plane flew into a Whitehall water tower in 2019, according to an NTSB report.

James Joseph Laird, 79, of Twin Lake, died when his Cessna 150 single-engine plane hit the tower near the school district’s athletic fields on September 9. Witnesses said the plane made no apparent attempt to get away from the white 180ft structure.

“The plane was on a straight course/flying towards the tower,” according to a report from the Whitehall Police Department which attributed the information to Jeremy Watts, who was standing near the letterboxes when he heard and saw the low-flying aircraft. “He never deviated and flew straight into the tower.”

The FAA had no record that Laird had renewed his medical certificate since his last exam more than 20 years earlier, according to the NTSB factual report released Feb. 16. Pilots over the age of 40 are required to renew a third class medical examination every 24 months. The FAA also requires pilots using antidepressants to have a special medical certificate.

A factual report from the NTSB does not identify a probable cause for the accident, but provides a summary of the conditions surrounding the incident, including weather, flight path, wreckage inspection and medical information. A probable cause report usually follows a few weeks.

The inspection revealed no abnormalities in the operation of the aircraft, which was partially consumed by fire after the crash.

Laird, who owned and operated Laird Heating and Cooling, was being treated for an anxiety/depressive disorder for which he used escitalopram, according to a three-year NTSB review of his personal medical records.

“These records did not mention the extent or severity of the pilot’s anxiety/depression,” the NTSB reported.

The drug detected during his autopsy was citalopram, along with N-desmethylcitalopram, according to an autopsy performed by the Western Michigan University School of Medicine. Citalopram is related to escitalopram and also used as an antidepressant.

“The patient instructions for citalopram state the following: Because psychoactive drugs may impair judgment, thinking, or motor skills, patients should be cautioned about operating hazardous machinery, including automobiles, up to ‘unless they are reasonably certain that [citalopram] therapy does not affect their ability to engage in such activities,” the NTSB report states.

Diphenhydramine, a common antihistamine, has also been found in his system that often causes drowsiness and sedation.

Laird’s cause of death was multiple injuries, according to the autopsy.

Laird flew from Fremont Municipal Airport, about 20 miles east of the water tower, and was known to fly frequently, including the night before, according to the police report. Whitehall is about 45 miles northwest of Grand Rapids.

FAA minimum safe altitude regulations state that a pilot cannot operate over a cluttered area less than 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle located less than 2 000 feet horizontally from the aircraft, unless it is taking off or landing.

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