Larry Reuthinger was working on his property off Bittrich-Antler Road when he spotted a plane traveling eastbound, toward the late-morning sun. He said he heard the engine sputter twice, followed by a popping sound. The plane, he said, was making a slow, arcing nosedive.
“I knew what was going to happen,” Reuthinger said. “I knew he wouldn’t be able to pull it back up.”
That plane, which crashed near Deer Park in mid July killing all three occupants, was piloted by a student flying for the first time, and is believed to have broken up in midair before slamming into an open field, according to a new report.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report, which was released Wednesday morning, says the aircraft experienced an “inflight breakup” and cites witnesses who observed the plane plunge toward the ground, both wings flying away from it.
Zoe Keliher, an NTSB investigator on the crash, said an official cause, whether it was operator error or equipment failure, could take up to 18 months to determine.
“We’re going to look at everything,” she said.
The report does not identify the person operating the plane, though it notes the trip was the pilot’s “first flight in his training program.” The Stevens County Coroner identified the three deceased as Andrew Trouten, 30, Joochan “JC” Austen Lee, 24, and Diego Senn, 30.
According to a search of Federal Aviation Administration pilot certifications, Trouten was the only person in the plane without a certificate to fly, suggesting he was in the process of earning his license when the plane went down. Lee was issued or renewed a student license on March 14, and Senn had held a commercial pilot license since at least June 2016 and a flight instructor license since January of this year.
Senn, who was a flight instructor for Moody Aviation, which trains missionary pilots, and Lee, a student, both had wives expecting children when they died.
James Anderson, an aviation lawyer with Seattle-based Aviation Law Group, said it was “highly unusual” for a plane to break apart in midair, given it was traveling at a normal speed before both wings flew off.
“It sounds like it happened relatively simultaneously,” he said after reading the NTSB report. “It’s very strange to have two wings come off an aircraft like that.”
The NTSB report says the aircraft left Felts Field Airport at about 10 a.m. on July 13. About 10 minutes later, it checked in to Spokane air traffic control at the Spokane International Airport while flying over Clayton.
Moments later, the aircraft climbed to about 7,000 feet above sea level and headed northeast at about 77 knots, or 88 miles per hour.
The plane made several sharp turns, and headed northwest for about 3,000 feet. The last recorded data, according to the report, came at 10:21 a.m., when the aircraft made a 90-degree right turn, speeding up to 134 miles per hour. The crash site is located about 740 feet southwest of the last recorded data, in a field near 5047 Bittrich-Antler Road.
Witnesses told the NTSB they saw it in “a steep dive toward terrain.” Witnesses “subsequently observed the wings departing the airplane at the same time.” The right and left wings were located about 300 and 190 feet from the main fuselage wreckage.
The plane disappeared behind a line of trees, said Reuthinger, who was watching from his property. Then he heard a thud.
“No explosion,” Reuthinger said.
Reuthinger’s account is similar to that of Ann Putman, who lives about a quarter-mile from the crash site, closer than most neighbors. She was inside and didn’t see the crash but said she heard the plane’s engine strain a couple of times before the aircraft hit the ground. “Rev, rev, thump,” is how she described the sounds.
Both neighbors said it’s common to see small recreational planes and Fire Boss tankers cruising over the area. Despite one early television report indicating the Moody plane was doing “barrel rolls” before it crashed, neither neighbor reported ever seeing a plane practicing aerobatic moves or attempting landings or takeoffs in the wide-open fields. The NTSB report also did not mention any rolling or maneuvers.
Anderson said the plane, which was built in 2000, was newer than many models used for flying, and should have been able to sustain g-forces much higher than what it likely experienced that day.
He also said operator error likely wasn’t to blame.
“The aircraft was newer and it was on a training flight where it doesn’t appear, right off the bat at least, that they were doing anything too crazy,” he said. “But we don’t know that yet.”
Weather at the time, according to the report, was clear, with a 10-mile visibility and wind gusts of about 4 miles per hour.
Brian Regnerus, director of public relations for Moody Bible Institute, a Christian evangelical college based in Chicago that oversees the Spokane aviation program based out of Felts Field, said the NTSB maintains jurisdiction over the investigation, and that his organization did not have any information beyond the initial report. He pointed to a statement by Moody Interim President Greg Thornton, who said the institute will “continue to cooperate fully with the NTSB’s investigation.”
“Please understand that throughout the investigation, we will not be provided information by the NTSB to share with the Moody community,” Thornton said in the statement. “Therefore, I ask that as a community we be patient, not speculate or engage in rumor, and wait upon the Lord.”