NELSON COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) – A deadly Nelson County plane crash has left a lot of questions unanswered — including what caused the mysterious crash in the first place.
A Cessna 560 Citation V business jet crashed in near Montebello, Virginia, on Sunday afternoon, killing four people inside. The plane’s owner, John Rumpel, told The New York Times that his daughter, 2-year-old granddaughter and nanny were on the plane. Two of the victims have been identified as Adina Azarian and her daughter, Aria, according to an email sent by Adina Azarian’s employer, Keller Williams Realty, to its employees.
According to Rumpel, the passengers were returning to their home in East Hampton on Long Island after visiting Rumpel’s home in North Carolina.
8News spoke with two local pilots in the Richmond area who said a loss of oxygen in the cabin of the jet could have been the reason behind the crash. Both pilots said it is important not to jump to any conclusions as the National Transportation Security Board (NTSB) completes its investigation, but still gave its opinion based on what has been released so far.
A sonic boom was heard Sunday throughout the D.C. area as fighter jets approached the Cessna Citation jet. They reported the pilot of the jet appeared to be slumped over and unresponsive. This could be a possible sign of the effects of hypoxia — an absence of oxygen — according to one Richmond private pilot Jillian Harrison.
“The fact that no one made contact makes me think that everyone on board was incapacitated,” Harrison said.
Harrison thinks that this could be an explanation for the bizarre sequence of events. In aviation, hypoxia can happen if a non-pressurized plane flies above 10,000 feet without supplemental oxygen or if there is rapid decompression during a flight, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
“You won’t get enough oxygen to your tissue and in your body and you won’t realize and so you’ll pass out,” Harrison said.
If everyone onboard the plane had passed out, that could explain why when air traffic control and F-16 pilots tried to make contact with the plane, no one answered.
But what about that strange flight path? First, the jet took off from Elizabethton Municipal Airport in northeastern Tennessee bound for Long Island MacArthur Airport in New York. It reached its destination but never touched down. Instead, it turned back around and flew over Washington D.C., which is some of the most restrictive air space in the country.
John Mazza, a commercially rated pilot in Colonial Heights, said his best guess for that flight path is the jet could have been on autopilot.
“That’s a real mystery right there,” Mazza said. “There’s a lot of things that could cause it,”
After leaving D.C. airspace and heading toward western Virginia, the jet began to rapidly decline at a rate of more than 30,000 feet per minute before crashing in Nelson County. Mazza said that rapid decline could be a sign they most likely ran out of fuel.
“It’s a good chance this is what happened, when they ran out of fuel, autopilot still flying it, autopilot still trying to maintain altitude, trimming it and trimming it and trimming it,” Mazza said. “And then at some point, it stalled and spun in.”
There is still no official cause for the crash. A preliminary factual report will be released by the NTSB within 10 days, with the final report expected to be released in 12 to 24 months.