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Military jet sent to intercept plane over D.C. saw pilot slumped over

F-16 Fighting Falcons from Eglin Air Force Base fly over a high school football game in Niceville, Fla., Sept. 24, 2021.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Tristan McIntire)
By Ian Duncan, Dan Lamothe and Emily Davies Washington Post

The pilot of a military jet that scrambled to intercept a private plane that flew over D.C. before crashing in rural Virginia saw that aircraft’s pilot slumped over, according to two people familiar with the situation.

The development, described by people speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, came as National Transportation Safety Board investigators arrived at the scene Monday of a private jet crash linked to a sonic boom heard a day earlier across the Washington region.

Adam Gerhardt, the lead investigator, said he expects his team to be on the scene for three to four days, and that investigators will be contending with remote, mountainous terrain.

“The accident site will take us extensive time to get to,” Gerhardt told reporters near the scene Monday. “The wreckage is highly fragmented.”

Experts said publicly available flight data suggests the pilot had fallen unconscious – most likely because of a loss of pressurization – and that the plane was flying on autopilot until it ran out of fuel. The Federal Aviation Administration said preliminary information shows the pilot and all three passengers died, which it said occurred “under unknown circumstances.”

John Rumpel, 75, said authorities told him that all four people on the plane – including his daughter and 21/2-year-old granddaughter – had died. Rumpel said police told him they were still investigating what caused the incident but that the plane was likely to have crashed after losing pressurization.

The Cessna Citation had departed Sunday from a small airport in Tennessee and was bound for Long Island, but it turned back south after reaching New York and eventually flew over D.C. The two people familiar with the investigation said contact with the plane was lost about 15 minutes after its departure as it was passing over Virginia for the first time.

They said the pilot of a military jet saw the Cessna’s pilot sitting in the left seat slumped over to the right.

Six F-16s were scrambled from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and two other facilities, a Pentagon spokesman said Monday. The F-16s were granted rare authorization by commanders to fly at supersonic speeds over an urban area to intercept the private jet – causing the boom – a sign of the urgency of the military’s response.

“It is important for the responding aircraft, in this case F-16s, to reach the situation as quickly as possible,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Devin Robinson said. “This allows more time for the people on the ground to run through procedures and gives more time for decisions to be made.”

The military jets and air traffic controllers were unable to make contact with the plane, officials said, and it crashed about 3:30 p.m. in Augusta County. Virginia State Police said Sunday there appeared to be no survivors. First responders reached the crash site about 8 p.m. Sunday, according to state police.

Leslie Snyder, a Augusta County, Va., sheriff’s lieutenant, said the crash site is near the Blue Ridge Parkway. She described the area as extremely remote, with no cellphone service.

NTSB investigators will document the crash scene and examine wreckage of the aircraft, as well as gather information from radar, weather data, the plane’s maintenance records and pilot medical records.

The board is expected to release a preliminary report in about three weeks, summarizing facts that investigators have gathered. A final report including a formal cause is likely to take at least a year.

Jeff Guzzetti, a former FAA and NTSB investigator, said flight-tracking data suggests the pilot was not in control of the private jet long before it reached New York.

The plane made no attempt to descend at its destination on Long Island and appeared to have turned around to head back to Tennessee. Guzzetti said that would indicate the plane was flying on autopilot.

“Whatever happened, happened at altitude, which is a critical location to lose pressurization,” Guzzetti said. “The higher up in altitude you are, the less time you have to get on oxygen.”

The plane continued to fly at about 34,000 feet until it begin to spiral to the ground. Guzzetti said the final minutes of the flight indicate the fuel for the plane’s right engine was exhausted.

It will be up to the NTSB to determine what might have caused the plane to lose pressure and why the pilot was not able to use an oxygen system. Guzzetti said investigators will want to know when the oxygen system was last serviced and whether maintenance records reveal any issues with the plane.

“It’s going to be challenging for the NTSB to answer these questions given the destruction of the wreckage,” he said.

A spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command said two jets “inspected” the Cessna, which was intercepted about 3:20 p.m. The pilot was unresponsive and crashed near the George Washington National Forest in Virginia, officials said. The military did not shoot down the plane and there is no indication the interception caused the crash.

The crash location is about 160 miles southwest of Washington.

FAA records list the plane that crashed as being registered to Encore Motors of Melbourne, a Florida-based company. The FAA records indicate the plane was only recently acquired by Encore. Guzzetti said that transaction would have involved an inspection by the FAA, but only a cursory one that likely would not have delved into the condition of the plane’s pressurization system.

The sonic boom, heard from Springfield, Va., to Bowie, Md., according to social media reports, startled residents in the Washington region Sunday afternoon. For about an hour, the cause of the sound remained a mystery until local authorities confirmed it had been caused by fighter jets.

The six F-16s were scrambled in response to the situation simultaneously, including two with the 113th Fighter Wing from the D.C. Air National Guard reaching the Cessna first after launching from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. The other planes were with the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 177th Fighter Wing, flying from Atlantic City, and the South Carolina Air National Guard’s Fighter Wing, responding from McEntire Joint National Guard Base, Robinson said.

Robinson said the intercept occurred about 20 miles northeast of Reagan National Airport. It was not clear Monday where the military plane crossed the sound barrier, a phenomenon that creates an air pressure change resulting in a deep boom.

The military often launches intercepts of unidentified objects or aircraft that are not making customary check-ins with ground controllers below, but it is rare for commanders to authorize supersonic travel over an urban area.

Other recent intercepts by the U.S. military include a series of scrambles earlier this year to reach unidentified objects flying over the United States, after an alleged Chinese surveillance airship made a cross-country flight beginning over Alaska and concluding with its shoot-down by F-22 fighter jets off the coast of South Carolina. Other objects were intercepted over Alaska and over the Midwest, with one shot down over Lake Huron.