As NTSB studies Virginia plane crash, a challenging investigation begins

National Transportation Safety Board investigators spent Tuesday at a Virginia crash site, combing through the wreckage of a plane linked to a sonic boom heard across Washington as a picture emerged of the pilot as an experienced, safety-focused former airline captain.

The location of the crash, the destruction of the plane and questions about whether the Cessna Citation had an operating black box highlight the arduous job of NTSB investigators tasked with determining what happened.

Investigators are encountering a challenging scene in difficult-to-access woods in the western Virginia mountains. The plane was destroyed in the crash, leaving it no longer identifiable as an aircraft, lead investigator Adam Gerhardt said near the scene. Recovered wreckage will probably be removed by helicopter. The NTSB didn’t know Tuesday whether the plane was operating with voice and data recorders that could help determine the cause of the crash.

“This is a rather extreme example of an airplane that impacted terrain,” Gerhardt said. “It’s already a challenging process and it makes it that much more challenging for us, but we will be here for as long as it takes.”

The Cessna Citation lost contact with air traffic controllers shortly after taking off Sunday from a small airport in eastern Tennessee. The aircraft flew close to its intended destination on Long Island before turning around, leading the military to scramble fighter jets and intercept it as the plane headed toward Washington’s restricted airspace.

The F-16s were cleared to fly at supersonic speeds, causing a sonic boom heard across the region. Once they reached the private jet, military pilots reported the Citation’s pilot was slumped over in his seat, a Defense Department spokesman confirmed.

He kissed his family goodbye. Their private plane never made it home.

Experts say publicly available data indicates the plane might have lost pressurization, leaving the pilot and passengers unconscious and the jet on autopilot until it ran out of fuel.

Virginia State Police said it will probably take weeks to positively identify the four victims. John Rumpel, the owner of the plane, named those on board as his daughter, Adina Azarian; granddaughter Aria; the girl’s live-in nanny; and pilot Jeff Hefner. Rumpel and others who knew Azarian said they didn’t know the name of the nanny; efforts to contact her family Tuesday were unsuccessful.

In a statement issued by a lawyer, Hefner’s family said his career began in crop dusting and spanned more than 40 years.

“We are devastated by the news of this tragedy which took the lives of Jeff and all three passengers,” they said. “Our hearts are full of sorrow for John and Barbara Rumpel for the loss of their daughter, granddaughter and nanny.”

Hefner was a retired Southwest Airlines captain and former member of its pilots union’s board of directors, the group confirmed. He had recently obtained the highest-level Federal…

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