Investigators in the United States are examining the wreckage of a small plane that veered off course and crashed in rural Virginia, resulting in the deaths of the pilot and three passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not yet disclosed the identities of those involved. The wreckage, described as “highly fragmented,” is scattered across a mountainous area, and it is expected to take several days to assess.
A connection to the owner of the small plane revealed that family members were on board. John Rumpel, 75 years old, who operates the Florida-based business that owned the aircraft, informed the New York Times that his daughter, two-year-old granddaughter, and their nanny were on the plane, along with the pilot. They were returning to East Hampton, New York, from Rumpel’s North Carolina residence. Rumpel, also a pilot, stated that the plane descended at 20,000ft per minute and that no one could have survived the crash at that speed. He expressed hope that those on board did not suffer.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Adam Gerhardt said that a report containing further details would be released next week. “Everything is on the table until we slowly and methodically remove different components and elements that will be relevant for this safety investigation,” he added. The most delicate evidence will be analysed on-site before the wreckage is transported to Delaware for further examination. Investigators will focus on determining when the pilot became unresponsive and what caused the Cessna 560 Citation V private plane to follow the path it did. A final report on the fatal incident is expected to be released within 12 to 24 months.
The crash has garnered increased attention due to its trajectory over Washington, DC, and some of the nation’s most restricted airspace. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad) stated that US F-16 fighter jets were deployed at supersonic speeds to intercept the aircraft, resulting in a loud sonic boom heard in the DC area. “During this event, the Norad aircraft also used flares – which may have been visible to the public – in an attempt to draw attention from the pilot,” the statement explained.
One of the fighter jet pilots who intercepted the erratic plane reported seeing the pilot slumped over. A sonic boom is similar to thunder, occurring when an object travels faster than sound (approximately 750mph or 1,207km/h at sea level), according to the US Air Force. While sonic booms can shatter glass, they are typically harmless to those who hear them. The Cessna crashed in a rural area of Virginia following a rapid, spiralling descent. Military officials, speaking anonymously, said the plane was not shot down and the fighter jets did not cause the crash.
Richard Levy, a retired captain and pilot instructor, told BBC News that the Cessna likely experienced a loss of cabin pressure. Aircraft cabins can depressurise for various reasons, including mechanical malfunctions or pilot errors. In this case, Levy suggested that the cabin may have depressurised gradually and “insidiously” without those on board noticing symptoms of hypoxia—a condition in which the body is deprived of adequate oxygen levels—until it was too late. “They’re unaware of what’s happening, and then they’ve gone beyond the point of rational thinking, consciousness and good vision,” Levy said.
US aviation officials reported that the plane departed from Elizabethton, Tennessee, at 1:14pm local time on Sunday, bound for Long Island, New York. However, flight-tracking data indicates that the pilot made a hairpin turn upon reaching Long Island before embarking on a steady course back towards its starting point, flying over the protected airspace surrounding the US capital. The flight data ends near Montebello, Virginia, around 3:30pm local time, showing the aircraft descending at a high speed.
Levy speculated that the pilot may have realised at some point that the cabin was depressurising and attempted to turn the aircraft around using autopilot. “After that, my assumption is that the pilot then lost consciousness,” he said. US President Joe Biden was briefed on the incident at the time, as he was playing golf at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, where the fighter jets were launched.
The Cessna crash has drawn comparisons to the 1999 Learjet crash that killed professional golfer Payne Stewart and five other passengers. That plane, which also experienced a loss of cabin pressure, flew aimlessly for thousands of miles across the country before crashing in South Dakota, killing everyone on board.
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