By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said investigators plan to conclude its on-scene investigative work Wednesday from the southwest Virginia crash site of the light plane that caused a security scare on Sunday when it flew over heavily restricted airspace near Washington.
Four people including the pilot of the Cessna Citation 560 were killed in the crash in a mountainous wooded area, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said. The Department of Defense scrambled F-16 fighter jets, which created a sonic boom over the U.S. capital as they pursued the Cessna.
The NTSB released a photo late Tuesday of the crash site with wreckage fragments; investigators are working on a wreckage recovery plan to determine what kind of equipment is needed. “During the next phase of the investigation, investigators will analyze manufacturing and maintenance records and conduct interviews,” the NTSB said.
On Monday, officials said air traffic controllers lost contact shortly after takeoff with the pilot Sunday after the Cessna took off from Elizabethton, Tennessee at 1:13 p.m. EDT (1713 GMT) headed to Long Island MacArthur Airport, about 50 miles (80 km) east of Manhattan. Controllers lost communication with the airplane during its ascent.
The last air traffic control communication attempt with the airplane was at around 1:28 p.m.
The FAA said it reported the failure of the pilot to respond to controllers to the domestic events network that includes military, security and law enforcement agencies at around 1:36 p.m.
White House spokesperson John Kirby defended the military’s response Wednesday when asked why it took more than 90 minutes for fighters to intercept the plane from the last FAA contact, saying the military “responded in a very textbook fashion here.”
Officials said the plane appeared to be on autopilot. The NTSB said the airplane was at 31,000 feet and eventually climbed to 34,000 feet, where it remained until 3:23 p.m. when it began to descend. The airplane crashed at approximately 3:32 p.m.
Military pilots attempted to contact the pilot, who was unresponsive and also used flares attempting to get the pilot’s attention.
The crash is reminiscent of other incidents involving unresponsive pilots. Golfer Payne Stewart died in 1999 along with four others after the aircraft he was in flew thousands of miles with the pilot and passengers unresponsive. The plane eventually crashed in South Dakota with no survivors.
In the case of Stewart’s flight, the plane lost cabin pressure, causing the occupants to lose consciousness because of oxygen deprivation.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Stephen Coates)
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