Fatal State College plane crash under investigation by NTSB

A hole in the tree line leads to the site where the airplane crashed. A plane approaching the University Park Airport from the east crashed into a wooded area on Thursday, June 16, 2016, killing two people.
A hole in the tree line leads to the site where the airplane crashed. A plane approaching the University Park Airport from the east crashed into a wooded area on Thursday, June 16, 2016, killing two people. nmark@centredaily.com

When a car crashes, it can be tragic, but it is also the kind of thing that happens every day.

The number of total accidents, what with sudden-stop fender benders in morning traffic and parking lot T-bones, is hard to measure because many aren’t reported, but the serious ones do get tallied. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the latest hard data come from 2013, when 2.3 million people were injured and 32,719 were killed in motor-vehicle incidents.

Airplane crashes, on the other hand, are a less than everyday occurrence. The National Transportation Safety Board says that during the same time, 429 people were killed in plane crashes.

When a Piper Navajo air ambulance owned by Aero National Inc., of Washington, crashed in Penn State-owned woodland on approach to University Park Airport on Thursday, it was not a simple June morning.

It was the morning that pilot Gary Orner, 60, of White Oak, and Pittsburgh-area corneal surgeon Robert Arffa, 62, lost their lives.

If it had been a car crash, the state police would have responded. There may have been a crash reconstruction. There would have been measurements of the skid marks from the tires and witness accounts and within a few days — maybe a few weeks depending on how busy the Rockview troopers were and how complicated the incident — people would know how it all happened.

With a plane crash, things are a little more complicated. They are also more regulated.

When an airplane is involved, the incident is not in local hands. It isn’t even the job of the state. The investigation is the job of the NTSB.

Since 1967, that agency has been tasked with finding the answers behind non-military aviation crashes. It isn’t a body that regulates travel, like the Federal Aviation Administration. It can’t arrest someone for a mistake, like law enforcement. The job is to take the broken pieces of a crash, separate and analyze those puzzle pieces and reassemble a complete picture of what happened.

That is what is happening as investigators look for answers in the Aero National crash. Penn State operates the airport, and spokeswoman Heather Robbins reported smoke on the plane’s approach and no response when the tower attempted to contact the Piper. All that is known is the plane left Washington County Airport at 7:30 a.m. and crashed just short of UPA.

“We are in the very, very early stages of the investigation,” said NTSB spokesman Terry Williams.

That starts at the crash site.

Williams said investigators are still looking at the debris field, the area where the plane was found a mile east of the runway. That site shows trees snapped in half around the broken wreckage.

“We will look at everything. We will look at the engines,” said Williams.

The Piper Navajo is a twin-engined plane. FAA registration information shows those engines being the Lycoming TIO-540 SER, manufactured by the Williamsport-based company that has been putting planes in the air since 1929.

The engines were removed from the scene on Friday.

“We will look at how low it came as it was descending,” Williams said. “We will talk to witnesses to see if they had any look at the aircraft.”

At least one UPA neighbor told the Centre Daily Times at the scene of seeing the plane. That person correctly identified the plane, originally reported as a larger craft, as a smaller twin-engine.

“After that, we remove to a secure location for a full examination,” Williams said.

But the wreckage is not the only thing the investigators will take apart. A lot of the work involves paper trails.

“We look at the pilot’s records,” Williams said.

Orner had been involved in aviation since the 1970s, when he attended Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics. His resume showed a history as a professional pilot since 1987. He had worked for Aero National since 2013. Owner Tom Pizzuti said he made the Washington to Centre County trip with Arffa, who performed surgeries at Nittany Eye Associates once a month, regularly.

“We look at the maintenance records of the plane,” Williams said.

The Piper had one other incident in its recent history. NTSB records show “structural damage to the airframe” after the plane struck a flock of geese on takeoff in September 2012. There were no injuries in that incident.

Then there is more. The environment. The weather. Anything that can be explored gets explored.

And that can take longer than deciding who did what in an interstate car crash.

“Within a week to 10 days, we will have a preliminary report,” Williams said.

The finished report, however, can take about a year. That bird strike with the same plane took eight months for a final determination.

The airport should be just days away from a preliminary report for the crash landing of the two-seater 1989 Seela Gerald L Glasair SH-2F that happened June 8, just eight days before the Aero National crash.

What they don’t do is engage in speculation.

While Williams said the NTSB is usually able to determine the probable cause of a crash, there is no “usual” when it comes to what that might be.

“It can be a variety of things,” he said. “It’s very, very hard to say.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce