On a gray and misty Thursday morning, an airplane punched a hole in a piece of woodland in Benner Township.
It created two more holes, leaving empty places in the lives of those who knew pilot Gary Orner, 60, of White Oak, and Pittsburgh-area corneal surgeon Robert Arffa, 62.
The plane, an Aero National Inc. Air Ambulance Service Piper Navajo used primarily to transport medical personnel and patients, went down around 8:45 a.m. as it approached University Park Airport. Penn State spokeswoman Heather Robbins said the tower could see smoke coming from the craft, but attempts to contact it were unsuccessful.
The plane’s wreckage remained at the scene of the crash midday Friday. Parts of the 1980 twin-engine Piper were scattered along a debris path carved into heavily wooded Penn State land about one mile east of the runway at University Park Airport.
The peaceful yet eerie crash site remained encircled by police tape on a bright spring day, a little more than 24 hours after the aircraft plunged into the grove on a foggy, drizzly morning. The trunks of at least two tall trees were snapped in half amid the wreckage.
A bulldozer used to plow access through the trees for rescue and recovery efforts also stood silent, mere yards from a large Penn State cornfield. Later in the day, the plane’s engines were transported from the scene for further inspection. The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday night its investigation to determine the cause of the crash could take up to a year.
According to Aero National President Thomas Pizzuti, the journey started around 7:30 a.m. at the Washington County Airport.
Look at trip information available online from Flight Aware, and you see that was normal. The plane made a round trip to UPA every month when Arffa, a well-regarded opthalmalogical surgeon who had won awards for the videos he made demonstrating techniques, visited State College to share his skills.
Orner’s own LinkedIn page shows he had a flight history that stretched back to 1987, but even before that, he studied at the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics in the 1970s.
His resume showed him working for Aero National since 2013.
“Gary was an experienced pilot and had flown this scheduled charter with Dr. Arffa on numerous occasions,” Pizzuti said in a statement.
In calls Thursday, the mood was somber in both Arffa’s own Bridgeville office and the Nittany Eye Associates offices. NEA’s Windmere office, where he was scheduled to perform Lasik procedures Thursday, was closed.
Another Centre County eye doctor expressed her sorrow responding to the story of his death on the Centre Daily Times website.
“Dr. Arffa was a respected colleague for over 20 years,” wrote Tracy Sepich, of Restore Eye Care. “Thousands of people, including myself, have him to thank for the vision they enjoy, from Lasik to corneal transplants. My prayers go out to Bob and his family.”
The NTSB investigation into the crash continues. A preliminary report is expected in about a week. A complete report could take a year.
Coroner Scott Sayers said in a release Friday that autopsy results and microscopic tissue analysis are pending, but are not expected for weeks.