WASHINGTON (Michigan News Source) – Efforts to inspect wreckage from a private jet that crashed in Virginia are underway.
The plane, owned by former pilot John Rumpel, was pursued by F-16s after overshooting its destination in Long Island and turning back to fly near the U.S. capital. The pilot and three passengers were killed in the crash.
“The wreckage is destroyed, meaning that it is no longer distinguishable as an aircraft,” said Adam Gerhardt, lead investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board. “However, there’s still several pieces that might be able to assist our fact-finding stage at this point.”
The plane, a Cessna Citation V, took off from Elizabethton Municipal Airport in Tennessee at 1:13 PM on Sunday, headed for MacArthur Airport in Long Island, New York. It was piloted by Jeff Hefner, a former Southwest Airlines Captain with over 25,000 flight hours.
The last recorded contact with air traffic control (ATC) occurred before the plane had reached its cruising altitude of 34,000 feet. ATC radioed the plane to stop its ascent at 33,000 feet but received no response. The plane eventually reached its Long Island destination, flew past the airport, then turned around and flew in a straight line toward its origin point. During this second leg of its journey, the plane overflew D.C. airspace, violating a no-fly zone. This prompted the launch of several F-16s, whose pilots spotted the pilot slumped over in the cockpit.
The crash occurred soon after, as the plane spiraled into an accelerating descent and hit the ground near
Fork Mountain, Virginia.
Officials are currently investigating a malfunction in the plane’s pressurization system as a possible cause of the accident. Cabin pressurization is designed to keep the interior of the plane at a lower atmospheric altitude than the outside air, allowing flight at high altitudes where oxygen is scarce. When the system malfunctions, those aboard can experience a range of incapacitating symptoms.
Jamie Struewing, a contract pilot who flies a Cessna Citation, explains that there are several safeguards in place to prevent unintentional cabin depressurization. Both engines can pressurize the cabin, so that the remaining engine can take over if one fails. A third emergency system can be manually activated by the pilot. The door includes both an inflatable seal and a backup. Pilots are warned about problems with the pressurization system by two lights in the cockpit, one of which flashes red directly in front of the pilot.
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If the altitude inside the plane reaches 10,000 feet (the altitude at which the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, recommends using supplemental oxygen), warning lights in the cockpit activate. If it hits 14,000 feet, oxygen masks drop for the passengers. The pilot must obtain his mask from a compartment in the cockpit.
The plane’s warning system would likely cause the pilot to turn to his checklist for troubleshooting, but Struewing points out that with the plane nearing 34,000 feet, any delay could be deadly. If the cabin depressurized rapidly, the pilot would have only one to two minutes of useful consciousness to correct the problem or descend.
According to the FAA, since the brain is the first part of the body to reflect a diminished oxygen supply, pilots often fail to recognize the symptoms before their judgment becomes severely impaired. This condition is called hypoxia, and it can cause overwhelming euphoria, slowed movement, and dizziness.
ATC could do little to help the passengers in the plane once contact was lost. Rumpel, the plane’s owner, said FAA officials contacted him after failing to reach the pilot and asked if he knew how to contact the plane’s passengers. Rumpel assumed the call was related to a potential radio glitch and said he paid little mind to it.
Flight tracking remained available through the airplane’s ADS-B, which periodically transmitted information about the plane’s location, speed, and altitude to flight tracking services like Foreflight and to ATC.
Once the plane reached the destination airport, Struewing suggested the autopilot could have entered its default “roll mode,” simply holding the wings level and maintaining a consistent altitude while following a compass heading. The plane’s straight-line path led the plane near D.C. and into restricted airspace.
Since ATC could not contact the pilot, F-16s were dispatched to chase the plane and find out whether it posed a security threat. The jets were authorized to travel at supersonic speed, causing a sonic boom heard over D.C. the day of the crash. The jets launched flares to get the pilot’s attention but did not receive a response.
About two hours after the pilot’s last contact with ATC, the plane ran out of fuel and began descending. The aircraft model was designed to carry enough fuel for a trip of nearly two thousand miles, but Struewing cited several reasons why the pilot might not have filled the tanks. Extra fuel would have slowed down the plane, with passenger weights compounding the problem.
Additionally, the pilot may have preferred to refuel at the final destination, perhaps in hopes of receiving a parking discount. With fuel scarce and engines malfunctioning, the plane slowed down while the autopilot struggled to
keep it at a constant altitude. These conflicting forces would drive the plane’s nose progressively further upward, eventually causing a stall, which occurs when an aircraft experiences a dangerous loss of lift.
By the time it hit the ground, the plane was losing altitude at nearly 30,000 feet per minute. Pilot Jeff Heffner, Adina Azarian, her daughter Aria Azarian, and nanny Evadnie Smith were all killed in the crash. Investigators are working to determine when the pilot became unresponsive and why the aircraft took the path it did. No definitive information has been released on the cause of the accident.
“Everything is still on the table until we slowly and methodically remove different components that will
be relevant for this safety investigation,” Gerhardt said.
A preliminary report on the crash will be released next week, while a full report could take one to two