ASHEVEILLE, N.C. -- A clogged fuel manifold most likely caused a May 2015 plane crash in Atlanta that killed three members of a prominent Asheville family and one of the men's fiancee.
The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday released its "probable cause" report on the crash that claimed the life of pilot Greg Byrd, 53, his two sons, Phillip Byrd of Asheville and Christopher Byrd of Atlanta, and Christopher’s fiancée, Jackie Kulzer of Atlanta
"Post-accident testing of the fuel manifold showed that it was not operating normally and was contaminated with debris," the NTSB report states. "The composition of debris and its origin could not be determined, but it was likely that the debris moved within the fuel manifold during operation and resulted in fluctuating power indications."
A manifold is a fitting on an internal combustion engine that directs a fuel and air mixture to the cylinders.
The plane crashed shortly after a 10:10 a.m. takeoff on May 8, 2015, from DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in suburban Atlanta. The Byrds and Kulzer were heading to Oxford, Mississippi, for the graduation the Byrds' other brother, Robert, from the University of Mississippi.
The plane failed to gain altitude and slammed into a concrete barrier on busy Interstate 285, erupting into a fireball, the smoke visible for miles.
RELATED | 911 calls describe I-285 plane crash
The NTSB report also notes that the plane, a Piper/PA-32R-300, had been running poorly a couple of days before the wreck.
"Several days before the accident flight, the commercial pilot told his mechanic and flight instructor that the airplane had not been climbing well," the report states. "The pilot had completed an engine run-up and subsequent test flight, and found no anomalies with the airplane."
A run-up test involves running the engine at full throttle on the runway.
Greg Byrd was a former Buncombe County Sheriff's Office deputy and owned several tanning salons in the Asheville area. Over the years, Byrd had secured his pilot's license, an instrument rating and a commercial pilot's license.
Steve Siske, a fellow former deputy, taught Byrd to fly. Siske described Byrd as a “meticulous” pilot, one who would never endanger his passengers or himself.
"Takeoff is the worst possible time to have a power issue, because you’re so low in the flight, and that's when all the available power is needed," Siske said.
Another NTSB document, the "factual report," includes a memo Siske sent to federal investigators, detailing a phone conversation he had with Byrd on May 6, two days before the crash. Byrd had taken the single-engine plane up and had difficulty in “getting the aircraft to gain altitude.”
“Mr. Byrd stated that, ‘I almost got killed this morning,’” Siske told the NTSB. “Mr. Byrd stated that he had used up more than half of the runway when he was able to finally get the aircraft in the air. Mr. Byrd stated that he almost hit the trees near the end of the runway, and that if he had another passenger on board at the time he probably would have.”
But Byrd took the plane out the next day at Asheville Regional Airport, the day before the Atlanta flight, and thoroughly tested the aircraft, both on the runway and in the air. It ran fine that day, Byrd told his mechanic and others.
Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan, who worked with Byrd for years, said flatly, "He would never had done anything to endanger any member of his family."
When news of the crash spread, Duncan said it sent shock waves through Asheville. The Byrd family owned clothing stores in Asheville, and they're well-known as a great family, Duncan said.
“It was a horrible day when we all learned of what happened,” Duncan said. “It was just so overwhelming because of the loss of him, his sons, his future daughter-in-law."