(Bloomberg) — Family members of a prominent supporter of conservative Republican causes, including a Hamptons real estate agent, were killed Sunday when their private plane crashed after flying over sensitive government sites in Washington without permission, causing a security scare.
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US warplanes unleashed a sonic boom that shook the area as they chased the Cessna jet that was flying over the region before coming down to the ground in Virginia.
Whatever disabled the private jet’s pilot appeared to occur about 15 minutes after it took off from an airport in Tennessee while climbing to 31,000 feet (9,451 meters), according to initial data from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Read more: Oxygen loss may have led to Virginia plane crash, expert says
One area the NTSB investigators will examine is the potential for hypoxia, a lack of oxygen that can cause a rapid loss of consciousness or disorientation, spokesman Eric Weiss said in an interview.
It dove at high speed into a remote mountainous area in Virginia, according to flight tracking data. The remains are highly fragmented, Weiss said. The site requires an hour’s walk to reach, she said.
The plane, a Cessna 560 Citation V, was unresponsive when it was intercepted by fighter pilots while flying through Washington and northern Virginia, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, said in a statement. A NORAD pilot observed the captain of the Cessna slumped in the cockpit, Weiss said.
None of the four people on board the plane survived, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Among them were Adina Azarian, who sold real estate in New York and Long Island, and her 2-year-old daughter, Aria, according to a statement from Keller Williams NYC, a franchise of Keller Williams Realty Inc., and news reports. .
John Rumpel, whose Florida-based Encore Motors of Melbourne Inc. owns the plane, had adopted Azarian, he told the Washington Post. His babysitter was also on the plane, he told the newspaper.
The flight was piloted by Jeff Hefner, Rumpel told the newspaper. Hefner was a captain for Southwest Airlines Co. and served as president of safety for the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association union. He retired in 2019, according to the union’s Facebook page.
Rumpel and his wife, Barbara, have been frequent conservative donors, including to the political campaigns of Donald Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker, according to the Open Secrets website. Barbara Rumpel is also a member of the National Rifle Association’s Women’s Leadership Forum, according to the group’s website.
Attempts to contact Encore Motors were unsuccessful.
The NORAD aircraft that rushed to intercept the plane were allowed to fly at supersonic speeds, which can produce a strong concussion known as a sonic boom. Residents throughout the Washington region reported hearing the boom.
The US Capitol complex was briefly put on alert and President Joe Biden was briefed on the incident. Airspace near Washington has been highly restricted since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The Cessna Citation crashed in Montebello, Virginia, around 3:30 p.m., the FAA said. It had departed from Elizabethton Municipal Airport in Elizabethton, Tennessee, and was en route to Long Island MacArthur Airport in New York, the FAA said.
The accident occurred more than 100 miles (161 kilometers) southwest of Washington. NORAD tried to make contact with the pilot until the plane crashed in Virginia, according to the statement.
The plane continued to climb after its pilot stopped speaking to controllers. According to data provided by the Flightradar24 tracking website, the Cessna reached an altitude of 34,000 feet (10,400 meters), a normal cruising altitude for the small plane, as it flew toward New York.
FAA officials notified national security and military agencies about the errant plane about eight minutes after the pilot stopped communicating, the transportation agency said in a statement.
It flew over several states before making a slight left turn as it reached the Atlantic Ocean off New Jersey and continued over the water to its destination. It then turned and flew directly over the Long Island Airport around 2:30 p.m. local time, but instead of descending or landing to the southwest, the direction it had turned, it continued in a straight line for about the next 50 minutes.
The plane’s route took it over Washington, near the highly sensitive US Capitol and the White House, according to Flightradar24 tracking.
The path suggests that the autopilot steered the plane toward its destination without input from the pilot, said Jeffrey Guzzetti, a consultant and former head of accident investigation for the FAA.
At least one possible explanation is that the plane’s cabin lost air pressure, either explosively or gradually, Guzzetti said. The plane would have had an emergency oxygen supply, but if the pilots don’t act immediately, it can be quickly incapacitated, he said.
“When you’re at that altitude, 34,000 feet, and you suddenly lose pressure, you better put your mask on quickly or you’ll lose consciousness,” he said.
Shortly after passing Charlottesville, Virginia, the plane turned right and descended rapidly, going from 34,000 feet to 27,635 feet in about two minutes, Flightradar24 spokesman Ian Petchenik said. Just before it disappeared from the company’s tracking system, it was sinking at about 20,000 feet per minute, Petchenik said.
Such descent speeds are highly unusual and could indicate the plane has run out of fuel, Guzzetti said.
Investigators expect to spend three to four days at the site examining the remains, the NTSB said in a statement. The role of the plane’s autopilot will be one of the areas examined by the safety board, Weiss said.
–With the assistance of John Gittelsohn.
(Updates with information on the victims in the first paragraph.)
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