Air Traffic Control recording captures pilot’s last transmissions; preliminary report released in fatal crash

Connor Spielmaker

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This screenshot shows the path of the flight and possibly some of the weather referenced. Courtesy of FlightAware

A report released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) details the events that led to the plane crash on Dec. 17, 2015 which resulted in the death of UNF Freshman Maitland Harvey.

According to the report, Harvey’s plane was flying to Tallahassee International Airport under visual flight rules (VFR). Wikipedia links provided by the Federal Administration Aviation (FAA) explain that VFR means the pilot is operating by line of sight and requires clear weather, where instrument flight (IFR) relies on instruments and electronic markers to pilot the aircraft.

Maitland Jane Harvey.  Photo courtesy Jean Maierhoffer

The plane was approaching the Tallahassee area from the East when Air Traffic Control (ATC) advised the pilot, James Swiggart, that there was “moderate precipitation” in the area. Swiggart acknowledged saying he would deviate “a little to the North.” 45 seconds later, Swiggart told ATC he would be diverting to Thomasville Regional Airport in Georgia for “better weather.”

ATC handed the flight off to ATC in Tallahassee. Shortly after, Swiggart declared an emergency. Swiggart advised ATC that he was flying in IFR conditions but was not capable of IFR flight. Contact with the plane was lost at about 7:38 p.m. This audio is available below.

FAA Public Affairs representative Kathleen Bergen said that pilots can decide whether or not to equip their aircraft with the necessary instruments to be certified for IFR flight. According to the NTSB report, the plane did not hold such a certification.

The search for the aircraft began immediately and was found the following morning, the report said. The plane crashed in a heavily wooded area and there was no evidence of a fire. The nature of the debris indicated a near-vertical impact.

Swiggart was a naval aviator and flight instructor and he recently obtained a Federal Aviation Administration flight instructor certificate. According to the pilot logbook recovered at the scene, he had logged about 220 hours of civilian flight time.

Harvey obtained an FAA student pilot certificate on Dec. 4, 2015. She was planning on receiving flight instruction from Swiggart during the holiday break. As Spinnaker previously reported, Swiggart and Harvey were cousins

The NTSB declined to comment as the investigation is still ongoing. Spinnaker will continue to update the story as more information becomes available.


Warning: These are actual transmissions from air traffic control to the aircraft, which identifies by its registration number “november-seven-seven-bravo-papa.” The first thing you hear appears to be Swiggart declaring an emergency, and is followed by ATC controllers being unable to reach him. The audio goes on as other pilots in the air continue to try and reach the plane over the radio. The audio is not graphic, but it is real and may make some listeners uncomfortable.

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 Courtesy / Audio has been edited for time.

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*The time radar lost contact was updated after new information was received from the NTSB.