(Bloomberg) — Family members of a prominent supporter of conservative Republican causes — including a Hamptons real estate agent — died Sunday when their private jet crashed after flying over sensitive government sites in Washington without permission, setting off a security scare.
US fighter aircraft triggered a sonic boom that rattled the area as they chased the unresponsive Cessna jet that flew over the region before eventually plunging to the ground in Virginia.
Whatever incapacitated the private jet’s pilot appeared to occur roughly 15 minutes after it took off from an airport in Tennessee as it climbed toward 31,000 feet (9,451 meters), according to initial data from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Read More: Loss of Oxygen May Have Led to Virginia Plane Crash, Expert Says
One of the areas NTSB investigators will examine is the potential for hypoxia, a lack of oxygen that can cause 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 wreckage is very fragmented, Weiss said. The site requires an hours-long hike to reach, he said.
The plane, a Cessna 560 Citation V, was unresponsive when intercepted by fighter pilots as it traversed Washington and northern Virginia, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, said in a statement. A NORAD pilot observed the Cessna’s captain slumped over in the cockpit, Weiss said.
None of the four people aboard the plane survived, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. They included Adina Azarian, who sold real estate in New York and Long Island, and her two-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. Her nanny was also aboard the plane, he told the paper.
The flight was piloted by Jeff Hefner, Rumpel told the paper. Hefner was a former captain with Southwest Airlines Co. who served as safety chairman with 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 political campaigns for 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 of America Women’s Leadership Forum, according to the group’s website.
Attempts to reach Encore Motors were unsuccessful.
The NORAD aircraft that scrambled to intercept the plane were permitted to fly at supersonic speeds, which can produce a loud concussion known as a sonic boom. Residents across the Washington region reported hearing the boom.
The US Capitol complex was briefly placed on alert and President Joe Biden was briefed on the incident. Airspace near Washington has been highly restricted since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
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 bound for Long Island MacArthur Airport in New York, the FAA said.
The crash occurred more than 100 miles (161 kilometers) to the southwest of Washington. NORAD attempted to establish contact with the pilot until the jet went down in Virginia, according to the statement.
The jet continued climbing after its pilot stopped talking to controllers. According to data provided by the tracking website Flightradar24, the Cessna reached an altitude of 34,000 feet (10,400 meters), a normal cruising altitude for the small jet, as it flew toward New York.
FAA officials notified military and homeland security agencies about the errant jet 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 toward its destination. It then turned and cruised directly over the Long Island airport at about 2:30 p.m. local time, but instead of descending or landing toward the southwest — the direction it had turned — it instead continued on a straight path for about the next 50 minutes.
The jet’s path took it over Washington near the highly sensitive US Capitol and White House, according to the Flightradar24 track.
The route suggests the autopilot steered the plane toward its destination without the pilot’s input, said Jeffrey Guzzetti, a consultant and former chief accident investigator with the FAA.
At least one possible explanation is that the jet’s cabin lost air pressure, either explosively or gradually, Guzzetti said. The plane would have had a supply of emergency oxygen, but if pilots don’t act immediately it can lead rapidly to incapacitation, he said.
“When you’re at that altitude, 34,000 feet, and you suddenly lose pressure, you better get your mask on quickly or you’re going to lose consciousness,” he said.
Shortly after passing Charlottesville, Virginia, the jet went into a right turn 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 plunging at about 20,000 feet per minute, Petchenik said.
Such descent speeds are highly unusual and could signal the plane ran out of fuel, Guzzetti said.
Investigators expect to spend three to four days at the scene examining the wreckage, 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 assistance from John Gittelsohn.
(Updates with information on victims from first paragraph.)
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