Update March 24: Now 14 confirmed killed; title changed to reflect this information.
I don't intend to make light of this story, but there's something ironic...and rather spooky...about a plane crashing into a cemetery. Yet that's exactly what happened in Butte, Montana on Sunday March 22nd, 2009. Stories published by the Deseret News, the Montana Standard, the Sacramento Bee, and KPAX Channel 8 (with three news videos) in Missoula.
A Pilatus PC-12 with a now confirmed 14 passengers on board, half of them kids, crashed into the Holy Cross Cemetery just 500 yards short of the runway at Bert Mooney Airport in Butte, Montana on Sunday. The flight actually originated in San Diego on Saturday night, then flew out of Redlands, California at 7:42 A.M., stopping in Vacaville and Oroville, both in California, before departing on its last leg.
Estimates of the number of passengers vary. The FAA claims 17, but the Associated Press says 14-17. The Montana Standard reports 16, based upon a report that at Oroville, Tom Hagler saw 12 children and 4 adults aboard the plane. Five of the victims are identified in the Napa Valley Register as being a family from St. Helena, CA. Kristi Dunks, air safety investigator for the Southwest Regional Office of the National Transportation Safety Board, confirmed there were no survivors but would not confirm the number of victims. The plane was not equipped with a "black box".
Update March 23rd 3:15 PM: Montana Standard has now identified more victims. And on March 24th, HelenaIR.com reports there are now 14 confirmed dead.
The aircraft had departed from Oroville and the pilot had filed a flight plan showing a destination of Bozeman, about 80 miles east of Butte. But the pilot canceled his flight plan at some point and headed for Butte. Officials at the Butte airport said they had no radio contact with the plane. Weather would not appear to be a factor; skies were partly cloudy, visibility 10 miles, and winds from the northwest around 10 mph at the time of the crash.
Because the Pilatus PC-12 is rated to carry only nine passengers (according to Wikipedia), the possibility of excessive weight will be thoroughly investigated. However, the rating is for nine adult passengers, and since most of the passengers were kids, then it shouldn't be much of an issue, unless there was an excess of baggage. According to former FAA inspector Mary Schiavo, the maximum allowable weight for the aircraft to land safely is 9,000 lbs, and the empty weight of the aircraft is 6,000 lbs, so only 3,000 lbs in passengers and cargo should have been aboard. But witness statments may reveal why the pilot decided to divert from Bozeman to Butte. There's a strong possibility the plane developed a problem enroute which convinced the pilot to divert to Butte. One witness 45 miles southeast of Butte thought the plane didn't sound right when it overflew her.
But other witnesses reported the plane was making a normal approach to the airport, until at the last moment, it started flipping all over the place. Another story in the Montana Standard summarizes these witness statements:
-- Gail Banks of Twin Bridges said she heard the plane fly low and loud over Twin Bridges, located about 45 miles southeast of Butte. "A crazy noise was coming out of it," she said.
-- Harley Howard was driving south on Harrison Avenue when he saw a plane, also southbound and flying parallel to Harrison about 150 to 200 feet above the trees. Instantly, he said, "the back end of the plane flipped up" over the nose so that its roof was facing the ground. He said then it "just went into a nosedive and plowed right into the cemetery."
-- Martha and Steve Guidoni, who were at the Express Lane convenience store, 4701 Harrison Ave., across Harrison from the cemetery, said the plane "just nose-dived into the ground."
—- Everett Bumgarner, a former police officer, was driving north on Harrison Avenue with his wife. "It didn't explode in the air," he said. "All of the sudden we saw the plane make a dip and its wings were spread. It came straight down." He said it "didn't look like it was in any trouble … it made a dip over and it dropped like a rock right into the ground." "I knew there was nothing I could do," he said.
—- Kenny Gulick, 14, said he saw the plane making a steep, angled turn before crashing. "All of a sudden the pilot lost control and went into a nosedive," he said. "He couldn't pull out in time and crashed into the trees of the cemetery." Gulick is a member of the Civil Air Patrol in Butte, a training program for pilots.
—- Keith Garrett was working at the convenience store. He saw a plane go by and it looked like it was flying sideways, he said. "I looked away then I heard a boom and then a repercussion...".
So based upon these witness statements, one could speculate that the plane developed trouble at or just before reaching Twin Bridges southeast of Butte, at which point he may have changed his flight plan for Butte, thinking he could not make it to Bozeman.
Update: On March 24th, the Montana Standard is reporting that the investigation is now focusing on the pilot's decision to divert the plane to Butte shortly before it crashed as a potentially crucial factor in determining the cause of the crash. Flying at 25,000 feet, pilot Buddy Summerfield requested the diversion from Bozeman, Montana to Butte just half an hour before the single-engine Pilatus PC-12 nose-dived into a cemetery at the edge of Butte's airport Sunday.
NTSB Acting Chairman Mark Rosenker also revealed that the plane's landing gear was down but its wing flaps were up at the time of the crash. That's unusual for a landing aircraft but not unheard of. Also under scrutiny are weather conditions that could have caused icing on the plane's wings and possible overloading. During descent, the plane passed through a layer of air at about 1,500 feet that was conducive to icing because the temperature was below freezing and the air had 100 percent relative humidity or was saturated. Safety experts said similar icing conditions existed when a Continental Airlines twin-engine turboprop crashed into a home near Buffalo Niagara International Airport last month, killing 50.