Preliminary investigation report reveals more details on fatal Centre County plane crash

The National Transportation Safety Board has released its preliminary report on the investigation into what caused the May 1 plane crash that killed two State College residents on the Sandy Ridge Mountain.

The plane, a Cessna 172N, was destroyed when it impacted the mountainous terrain in Rush Township about 8 minutes after taking off from University Park Airport on its way to the Pittsburgh/Butler Regional Airport. Both occupants of the plane, pilot Joseph T. Bernardo, 55, and his wife, 54-year-old Valerie Bernardo, were killed.

Preliminary air traffic control information obtained by the Federal Aviation Administration shows the pilot filed an instrument flight rules plan, but elected to depart with visual flight rules and asked the air traffic controller to cancel the IFR flight plan, according to the report. Meteorological conditions did prevail at the time for the VFR flight, the report said. The pilot was cleared for takeoff, provided the updated altimeter setting and told to advise when leaving the class D airspace. However, there were no subsequent communications from the pilot, according to the report.

Upon departing, the plane climbed to 2,500 feet mean sea level, before turning slightly right to a west-southwest heading, descending to about 2,000 feet msl, and remaining on that heading and altitude for 10 nautical miles, preliminary radar track data show. The flight then turned to the same heading initially flown after takeoff, descended slightly then climbed to about 2,000 feet msl over about 3 nm. The radar data indicated that the airplane began a right turn before radar track data was lost, according to the report. The last radar target indicated the airplane was about 0.11 miles southeast of the crash site.

A witness spoken to for the report said it was foggy but not raining that afternoon. She heard a loud-sounding airplane, which got her attention. She saw the airplane west of her location, about a half mile east-southwest of the crash site, flying low and “straight” below the fog in a westerly direction “way above a nearby 45-foot-tall tree,” the report detailed. The airplane reportedly banked to the right before she lost sight of it, heard an explosion and called 911.

Debris in a tree on Sandy Ridge Mountain after a small plane crash on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. Abby Drey

The airplane impacted heavily wooded terrain near the top of a ridgeline about 17 miles west-southwest of the University Park Airport. According to the report, the wreckage was highly fragmented and partially consumed by a post-crash fire, which is consistent with witness and firefighter reports obtained by the Centre Daily Times.

The plane was being operated by State College-based PsyFliers Club Inc., under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 as a personal flight, the report confirmed.

Mountain Top, Columbia, Bald Eagle, Neptune, Philipsburg and Port Matilda fire companies, Mountain Top EMS, Moshannon EMS, Centre County Emergency Management, the Centre County Coroner’s Office, the state game commission and state police all responded, spending nearly nine hours working at the crash site.

Both the low visibility caused by the fog, and the mountainous terrain and trees made locating and accessing the site difficult, Mountain Top Chief Tim Sharpless said. It took about an hour for the first firefighter to reach the scene, he said.

Joseph Bernardo, born in Lodi, New Jersey, earned his Ph.D. in information sciences and technology from Penn State, and worked for the university for nine years as a senior research engineer at the Applied Research Lab, according to his obituary. Valerie Bernardo, from Butler, was also a Penn State grad who worked as a registered dietitian for 28 years.

“On behalf of Penn State, we extend our heartfelt condolences to friends and family of Joseph Bernardo during this time of tremendous sorrow,” university spokeswoman Lisa Powers said.

The full report, which will include the NTSB’s determination of the probable cause of the crash, will be released in 12-24 months, a spokesman for the agency said.

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