Hours later, police said rescuers had reached the site of the plane crash in a rural part of the Shenandoah Valley and that no survivors were found.
The Federal Aviation Administration says the Cessna Citation took off from Elizabethton, Tennessee, on Sunday and was headed for Long Island’s MacArthur Airport. Inexplicably, the plane turned around over New York’s Long Island and flew a straight path down over D.C. before it crashed over mountainous terrain near Montebello, Virginia, around 3:30 p.m.
It was not immediately clear why the plane and pilot did not respond to radio transmissions, why it crashed or how many people were on board. The plane flew directly over the nation’s capital, though it was technically flying above some of the most heavily restricted airspace in the nation.
A U.S. official confirmed to The Associated Press that military aircraft had scrambled to respond to the small plane. The official was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the military operation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to the Pentagon, six F-16 fighter jets were immediately deployed to intercept the plane. Two aircraft from the 113th Fighter Wing, out of Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, were the first to reach the Cessna to begin attempts to contact the pilot. Two F-16 aircraft out of New Jersey and two from South Carolina also responded to the incident.
Flight tracking sites showed the plane suffered a rapid spiraling descent, dropping at one point at a rate of more than 30,000 feet per minute before crashing in the St. Mary’s Wilderness.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command later said in a statement that the military aircraft were authorized to travel at supersonic speeds, which caused a sonic boom that was heard in Washington and parts of Virginia and Maryland.
“During this event, the NORAD aircraft also used flares – which may have been visible to the public – in an attempt to draw attention from the pilot,” the NORAD statement said. “Flares are employed with highest regard for safety of the intercepted aircraft and people on the ground. Flares burn out quickly and completely and there is no danger to the people on the ground when dispensed.”
In Fairfax, Virginia, Travis Thornton was settled on a couch next to his wife, Hannah, and had just begun recording himself playing guitar and harmonica when they were startled by a loud rumble and rattling that can be heard on the video. The couple jumped up to investigate. Thornton tweeted that they checked in with their kids upstairs and then he went outside to check the house and talk to neighbors.
Virginia State Police said officers were notified of the potential crash shortly before 4 p.m. and rescuers reached the crash site by foot around four hours later. No survivors were found, police said.
The plane that crashed was registered to Encore Motors of Melbourne Inc, which is based in Florida. John Rumpel, who runs the company, told The New York Times that his daughter, 2-year-old granddaughter, her nanny and the pilot were aboard the plane. They were returning to their home in East Hampton, on Long Island, after visiting his house in North Carolina, he said.
Rumpel, a pilot, told the newspaper he didn’t have much information from authorities but suggested the plane could have lost pressurization.
“It descended at 20,000 feet a minute, and nobody could survive a crash from that speed,” Rumpel told the newspaper.
A woman who identified herself as Barbara Rumpel, listed as the president of the company, said she had no comment Sunday when reached by The Associated Press.
The episode brought back memories of the 1999 crash of a Learjet that lost cabin pressure and flew aimlessly across the country with professional golfer Payne Stewart aboard. The jet crashed in a South Dakota pasture and six people died.
President Joe Biden was playing golf at Joint Base Andrews around the time the fighter jets took off. Anthony Guglielmi, spokesperson for the U.S. Secret Service, said the incident had no impact on the president’s movements Sunday. Biden was playing golf at the Maryland military base with his brother in the afternoon.
A White House official said the president had been briefed on the crash and that the sound of the scrambling aircraft was faint at Joint Base Andrews.
Associated Press writers Chris Megerian and Zeke Miller in Washington and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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