CNN

Pilot of unresponsive private jet that crashed and killed 4 was seen slumped over, source says

Jun 6, 2023, 5:00 AM

Search and rescue teams assemble before going to the site of Sunday's plane crash near Montebello, ...

Search and rescue teams assemble before going to the site of Sunday's plane crash near Montebello, Virginia. Photo credit: Randall K. Wolf via AP

(CNN) — The pilot of the unresponsive private jet that triggered an interception by supersonic military fighter jets protecting Washington, DC, was observed slumped over in his seat, a source familiar with the response told CNN.

The lone pilot and three passengers were aboard the Cessna Citation that crashed in a heavily wooded area near Waynesboro, Virginia, the Federal Aviation Administration said Monday. There were no survivors, authorities said.

Another source told CNN that crash investigators are most interested in hypoxia – a shortage of oxygen in the blood – as a reason why the pilot and passengers didn’t respond to attempts by air traffic controllers and even other civilian aircraft to contact the ill-fated plane.

Hypoxia is an insidious risk of flying at high altitude and could have been brought on by a decompression of the jet’s pressurized cabin, aviation experts say. The flight was cruising from East Tennessee to Long Island, New York, at 34,000 feet, an altitude where pilots have 30 to 60 seconds to don oxygen masks when pressure drops or risk falling unconscious.

When F-16s reached the Cessna 560 Citation V around 3:20 p.m., the jet pilots set off flares in an effort to get the pilot’s attention, a Sunday news release from the Continental US North American Aerospace Defense Command Region said.

“The pilot was unresponsive and the Cessna subsequently crashed near the George Washington National Forest, Virginia,” the release said. “NORAD attempted to establish contact with the pilot until the aircraft crashed.”

The FAA lost contact with the jet just 15 minutes after it took off, according to a statement from the agency and data from air travel tracking website FlightAware.

Approximately eight minutes after losing contact, the agency contacted the “Domestic Events Network” that consists of the military, national security, homeland security and other law enforcement agencies, according to the FAA statement.

The civilian aircraft flew from Elizabethton, Tennessee, past its destination – New York’s Long Island MacArthur Airport – and turned back before eventually crashing in Virginia on Sunday afternoon, according to NORAD and LiveATC.net.

In addition to the F-16s, air traffic controllers and other civilian pilots frantically tried to contact the unresponsive crew of the jet by radio as it flew toward Washington, DC, at 34,000 feet, audio from LiveATC.net revealed.

Key to investigators, a source familiar with the investigation says, is the function of the plane’s autopilot. The flight turned around and kept flying for more than 300 miles before crashing in rural Virginia.

First responders reached the crash site around 8 p.m. Sunday night, state police spokesperson Corinne Geller confirmed. Augusta County Sheriff Donald Smith said Monday that “extremely steep” and rough terrain made it difficult to get to the site, which was at the top of a mountain about 1.5 miles from a road.

Near the rugged scene Monday, National Transportation Safety Board investigator in charge Adam Gerhardt told reporters the agency’s probe will ask: “When exactly did the pilot become unresponsive? And why did the airplane fly the flight track that it did fly?”

Report: Plane’s passengers were a woman, her toddler and nanny

John Rumpel, whose family company owned the wrecked aircraft, told the Washington Post that his daughter Adina Azarian, and 2-year-old granddaughter, Aria Azarian, were among the three passengers and pilot that died in the crash.

Rumpel also identified the pilot as Jeff Hefner, according to the report.

The private aircraft was registered to Encore Motors of Melbourne, Inc., a company based in Florida, according to FAA records.

John Rumpel, whose wife Barbara is listed as the president of the company, told CNN Sunday night they own Encore. The husband confirmed Barbara Rumpel is safe but declined to comment further.

John Rumpel told the Post that he received a call from the FAA about 90 minutes after dropping his daughter, granddaughter and their nanny at a Tennessee airport, where they were headed home to East Hampton, N.Y.

The FAA asked Rumpel if he knew how to contact the plane, the Post reports.

“My family is gone, my daughter and granddaughter,” Barbara Rumpel wrote in response to a post on her Facebook profile in which others were asking if she was on the plane.

Hefner’s previous employer, the head of a law firm where Hefner worked as a flight captain, said the pilot is survived by his wife and three children.

Hefner was “a highly accomplished and skilled Aviator, he flew 25 years with as a Captain with Southwest Airlines and had over 25,000 flight hours,” attorney Dan Newlin told CNN in a statement. He added, “After retiring from Southwest Airlines, Jeff went on to be certified as a Captain in numerous private aircraft.”

Investigators sift through wreckage

The Cessna left a “crater” in the ground and few clues as to why it went down, officials said Monday.

Four first responders, who spoke on the condition they were not identified, described a grisly scene at the crash site.

There were perhaps four recognizable pieces of wreckage from the plane, which they believe impacted the ground at a very steep angle, they said. “There was nothing really bigger than your arm,” said one.

They also found signs of human remains.

NTSB officials will spend the next few days processing evidence at the crash site, before the wreckage is helicoptered to a secure facility in Delaware, Gerhardt told reporters Monday.

The plane was not required to carry “black boxes,” devices used to record flight data, but investigators will still search for them in hopes that they were installed.

Gerhardt said at this very early stage in the investigation, “basically everything is on the table,” when it comes to determining the cause.

Plane flew over US capital area

It’s unclear whether the private aircraft entered restricted airspace.

The US Capitol complex was placed on an “elevated alert” when the plane flew near the area on Sunday afternoon, US Capitol Police said in a statement.

Six F-16s launched from three bases, White House National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said Monday. Two jets from Joint Base Andrews were first to intercept the private plane, he said.

The F-16 jets were “authorized to travel at supersonic speeds” as they raced to make contact with the aircraft, according to the Continental US North American Aerospace Defense Command Region news release.

The extraordinary speed caused a sonic boom across the Washington, DC, area, officials said. That means the jets were traveling faster than the speed of sound, creating shock waves that caused a sudden and resounding boom, startling some residents on the ground.

President Joe Biden was golfing at the Andrews Air Force Base golf course near Maryland’s Joint Base Andrews when the boom resounded through Washington. The US Secret Service said it did not alter its posture for keeping President Biden secure after the fighter jets were scrambled.

The president was briefed on the incident, according to a White House official.

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Pilot of unresponsive private jet that crashed and killed 4 was seen slumped over, source says