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Preliminary report reveals last moments of fatal crash

From behind the police tape line the landing gear of the aircraft can be seen through the dense woods. A plane approaching the University Park Airport from the east crashed into a wooded area on Thursday, June 16, 2016 killing two people.
From behind the police tape line the landing gear of the aircraft can be seen through the dense woods. A plane approaching the University Park Airport from the east crashed into a wooded area on Thursday, June 16, 2016 killing two people. Centre Daily Times, file

“With you on the approach.”

Those were the last words that were heard from the Aero National Piper Navajo N3591P.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report, the plane contacted the University Park Airport tower with that message at 8:25 a.m. June 16, one minute after the pilot was instructed to change radio frequencies and contact the tower as it came closer to landing.

“The tower controller acknowledged the call and issued a landing clearance. There were no further communications with the airplane despite multiple attempts by (air traffic control),” according to the report.

Eighteen minutes later, the airport operations ground vehicle near runway 24 saw smoke from the trees a mile to the northeast.

The Piper had met its final resting place, a patch of woodland owned by Penn State in Benner Township.

The preliminary information shows a flight where nothing seemed to go wrong, but two Pittsburgh-area men still died: pilot Gary Orner, 62, and his passenger, corneal surgeon Robert Arffa, 60, who was making a regular monthly visit to Centre County to perform Lasik vision correction.

Aero National is an air ambulance company based in Washington. President Tom Pizzuti said last week that Orner was an experienced pilot who made the trip often.

The NTSB’s findings showed that Orner logged many hours in a plane. He was rated to fly both single-engine planes and multi-engine crafts like the twin-engine Piper. His medical certification had just been reissued on March 7. At that time he had 12,400 hours of flight experience. From September 2015 to March, he spent 350 hours in the air.

The plane had logged plenty of air-time too. Built in 1980, it was inspected in February and had logged 15,999.6 miles at the time.

The report detailed the path of the plane, a 450-foot swath through “densely wooded terrain.” The Piper initially struck the treetops 70 feet off the ground. The wings tore off along the way. The engines and landing gear came free before the main body of the plane came to rest, with the propellers gouging and cutting into the trees.

And then there was the fire. The report says the post-crash blaze consumed the instrument panel, cockpit and cabin.

Both engines “displayed extensive thermal damage” but showed “no preimpact anomalies.”

The report shows no final answers, which will take months as the remnants of the plane are surveyed and more details picked apart. A final report could take a year or more to be released.

A second preliminary report has been issued for a crash that occurred just eight days earlier.

That plane, tail number N666GJ, was a Glasair kit craft built by Gerald Seela. Penn State officials did not identify the pilot in that crash, but no injuries were reported.

That report was just one sentence long, as the NTSB said it would look at the minor incident’s data and not travel to investigate the crash landing on the runway that caused only a brief closing of the airport.

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce

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