Pilot in fatal Nashville plane crash mysteriously circled airport for hours, turned transponder off
Three weeks after it happened, investigators are still trying to understand how a small plane veered hundreds of miles off its flight plan, crashed at the Nashville airport, and wasn't found by airport authorities for hours.
Authorities aren't sure how Michael Callan flew undetected over an international border, why he turned his transponder off, and what caused him to circle the Nashville airport for as long as two and a half hours before attempting to land — also apparently without coming to the attention of airport authorities. Each of those details was confirmed by at least two authorities in a position to be familiar with the investigation, although some could not discuss them on the record.
"We're trying to piece it together," said Jay Neylon, air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
But none of the mysteries surrounding the incident compares to this one: Michael Callan, the 45-year-old Canadian who died in the late-night crash, listed singer Taylor Swift as his next of kin.
That came as news to Swift when authorities reached out to her after the crash.
"The first we heard of this was when the appropriate authorities contacted Taylor's management about the crash," wrote Paula Erickson, Swift's publicist, in an email response to questions. "Taylor does not know this person."
Erickson declined to say anything more, but Metro Police spokesman Don Aaron said in an email that one of the precinct detectives heard from the Federal Aviation Administration that Callan had listed Swift as his next of kin with the flying club in Canada.
That information, Aaron continued, was then passed along to the agency's Specialized Investigations Unit, and a sergeant in that unit relayed the information to Swift's security team. Swift's team reported back that no one, including the singer, had heard of Callan before the crash.
Aaron said the matter was then dropped after the information was passed along to the Joint Terrorism Task Force by the department's liaison to the group.
Callan had no arrest history in Nashville, Aaron said, "and we don't know what he was doing."
Aaron said the department's primary role in the case was determining the manner of death,which at this point appears to be accidental.
Ultimately, other mysteries became bigger priorities than the inexplicable mention of Swift. Neylon said the agency is focused on aviation issues, such as whether Callan ever landed at Pelee Island before heading to Nashville or whether he stopped somewhere else and refueled. His flight plan named the island in Lake Erie, about 100 kilometers from where he took off, as his ultimate destination.
"There is no conclusive evidence he did land there," Neylon said.
He said investigators were reviewing radar records to try to determine just how long the plane circled over the Nashville airport. The plane he was in, a Cessna 172R, can fly for six hours on a single tank of fuel.
Neylon said the transponder on the plane could have malfunctioned or been turned off, a possible indication the pilot was trying to avoid detection.
The flying club
Answers to those questions likely won't come from the flying club, which owned the plane Callan flew. David Gillies, club president, said in a telephone interview that he had been contacted by Callan's two sisters, and they had asked him not to discuss their brother's mysterious end.
The sisters, Gillies noted, "are his next of kin."
"They asked me not to comment and I'm going to respect that," GIllies said, "They want to bring their brother home and bury him."
Adding to the mystery, Callan may have had a criminal record. According to published reports a man named Michael Callan from Windsor of the same age has a criminal record that included bank robberies. A Michael Callan of that same age also was arrested in a Windsor area child pornography case, but Canadian officials would not confirm whether it was the same person.
The initial report on the accident from the National Transportation Safety Board, issued Nov. 5, was spare in details. NTSB officials indicated they were trying to figure out how the aircraft crashed and then sat undetected on Nashville's Runway 2C for as long as seven hours. The runway had been checked at about 2 a.m., but the wreckage was not spotted until the pilot of a passing plane noticed it at 8:45 a.m.
Officials at the Nashville airport and the FAA haven't said how many air traffic controllers were on duty, whether they should have noticed the plane or its wreckage, or whether any employees have been disciplined after the incident.
Airport spokeswoman Emily Richard said she could provide no new details because everything was in the hands of the NTSB.
It's also unclear why Callan, who was flying in heavy fog at night even though he was not certified to operate solely from instrument readings, didn't try to reach anyone at the Nashville tower. Bruce Landsberg, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said that even if Callan wasn't familiar with the Nashville airport's frequencies, he could have used a universal frequency to make contact.
Landsberg said the normal practice would be for a pilot to make contact at least 25 miles out when approaching a major airport.
Neylon said investigations such as this one generally take about six months. A final report on the accident can be expected about a year after the crash, he said.
Asked if the Oct. 29 incident was unusual, Neylon said, "Every accident is unusual."