Mercy had problems with fuel switch prior to fatal flight

NTSB report says hospital exec had given up flying the plane two days before crash

Two days before LifePoint Hospitals Inc. Chief Executive Scott Mercy died in May 2000 in the crash of a private airplane, he had abandoned efforts to fly the plane because the engine would run for only a few seconds before stopping.

Moments before the fatal crash itself, the same thing recurred, leaving "confusion on [Mr. Mercy's] face," according to an airframe mechanic who witnessed the plane's departure. Thirty-five minutes after eventually taking flight from Nashville International Airport, the Beech C23 single-engine plane crashed nose-first on Smyrna Municipal Golf Course, 1,086 feet from the end of the runway at Smyrna Airport. Mr. Mercy died of loss of blood secondary to multiple injuries, while flight instructor Deborah Millwood's cause of death was multiple injuries.

This information and other findings about the crash are contained in a recently released report compiled by the National Transportation Safety Board. The findings seem to suggest that neither Mr. Mercy nor his flight instructor had experience flying the same make and model plane as the one they flew May 30, 2000. In particular, Mr. Mercy, who had logged 107 hours flying single-engine planes, appears to have not completely understood the mechanisms that read and controlled the plane's flow of fuel. Also, post-accident testing discovered that problems in the fuel selector valve's O-rings caused excessive leakage that led to failure of the fuel selector valve.

The plane was owned by Dr. Tom Frist, chairman of HCA. The relationship between Mr. Mercy and Dr. Frist was very close. The veteran hospital executive took Mr. Mercy under his wing shortly after the younger man's arrival at HCA in 1983. Mr. Mercy's late father had been an executive at HCA. At the time of his death, Mr. Mercy was chairman and chief executive of HCA-spinoff LifePoint and chairman of America Service Group.

According to the NTSB report, Dr. Frist and one of his sons found a note from Mr. Mercy in the cockpit of the plane the day before the crash. In the note, Mr. Mercy said he had given up trying to fly the plane on May 28 because he couldn't start the engine, presumably due to a fuel pump problem. Mr. Mercy's wife said he had mentioned this problem to her as well.

After reading the note, Dr. Frist and his son found the fuel selector was in the "off" position. They turned the selector to the position that supplies fuel from one of the tanks and the engine started normally. They flew for one hour and six minutes using fuel from the right tank, then used fuel from the left tank for the remaining 24 minutes of their flight.

Records indicate that the final time the Beech C23 received fuel was prior to Dr. Frist's 90-minute flight. The wrecked plane was found to have four gallons of gas in the right wing fuel tank and the left wing fuel tank had been ruptured.

Dr. Frist said that he phoned Mr. Mercy on the day of the crash to tell him about his finding about the position of the fuel selector valve and offered to "fly with him to see that he was properly checked out." Mr. Mercy declined the offer and later commented to his wife that there was nothing wrong with the plane, saying that they had not put a "'switch' or something in the correct position."

The post-accident analysis concluded that the fuel selector valve had been near the "off" position at the time of the crash.

Mr. Mercy had gone to the Smyrna Airport that day to practice touch-and-go and stop-and-go landings in preparation for an upcoming island-hopping trip.