Fatal plane crash at University Park Airport prompts investigation

The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting an investigation of Thursday’s fatal plane crash near the University Park Airport, but it could be up to a year before the investigation concludes.

In separate press briefings held at the airport Thursday, airport representatives provided initial details into the crash, while NTSB investigators provided early investigation details.

A small 1980 twin-engine Piper airplane crashed at about 8:45 a.m. about one mile east of the airport, Penn State spokeswoman Heather Robbins reported. Two individuals — the pilot and a single passenger — were pronounced dead at the scene by Centre County Coroner Scott Sayers.

According to early reports from Robbins, the airport’s tower crew observed smoke coming from the approaching craft. When the tower attempted to contact the pilot, there was no response.

According to airport Director Bryan Rodgers, air traffic controllers received no distress calls from the pilot, nor did they observe the plane make any unusual motions.

Portions of Rock Road and Barnes Lane were closed after the crash, Robbins said. Rock has since been reopened, but Barnes remained closed at press time.

The airport was closed following the crash, reopening at about 10 a.m., Robbins said. During that time, two non-commercial flights were diverted to different airports, and two non-commercial flights were delayed.

At a 7 p.m. briefing, NTSB senior air safety investigator Brian Rayner reported that he was in the middle of assembling a team of investigators to assist him in the investigation, including NTSB and Federal Aviation Administration investigators, representatives from the engine and airframe manufacturers, air traffic controllers and meteorologists.

Rayner reported that the coroner had completed his work at the crash site at the time of the briefing.

The wreckage is in-line with the center of the runway, he said. The preliminary understanding is that the plane was performing an “instrument approach procedure” in order to land at the airport.

The investigation will involve obtaining recordings of air traffic control facilities while the plane was en route to the airport, he said, as well as radar data that will show the route of the flight, airspeeds and altitudes.

Right now, he said, his concern rests on examining the perishable evidence and he plans to examine the wreckage Friday. This could possibly include bringing the engines up to the airport for closer examination over the weekend.

The investigation will also examine the pilot’s certifications, training and the medical examiner’s report when it becomes available.

This investigation will follow on the heels of another. The airport’s last crash was just eight days earlier, when a a two-seater 1989 Seela Gerald L Glasair SH-2F crash-landed on the runway, closing the airport for about two hours.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, commented on Thursday’s crash and both investigations.

“We are still processing the first investigation, where thankfully no one was seriously injured,” he said. “With the second, that investigation is currently underway.”

He said he weighed in because of the federal nature of airport and transportation oversight.

“Anything like that that happens in the district, especially in my home county, I want to be informed about,” Thompson said.

Thompson announced the $617,725 grant to the airport for the air traffic control tower, as well as aircraft rescue and firefighting building improvements in September 2012. The airport is a joint venture between Penn State and the Centre County Airport Authority.

Thompson also announced a $251,690 grant for the tower construction in April 2010 and two grants totaling $950,000 for taxiway lighting and a master plan update in May 2012.

“I’m very proud of the airport at University Park,” Thompson said. “We’ve put investments for safety there. The air traffic control staff are outstanding and experienced. ... I have a tremendous amount of confidence in University Park Airport.”

Asked if he anticipates any reaction from the public to the two back-to-back crashes, he said he hoped that wouldn’t happen.

“I think we will be better able to reflect on that when find out the findings of these incidents,” Thompson said.