NTSB: Witness saw Louisiana plane level out before crash

REBECCA SANTANA
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Small Plane Crash Louisiana

A view of the burnt wreckage of a small plane that crashed into the parking lot of a post office is shown, at left, in Lafayette, La., Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019. Several people died in the crash. (Scott Clause/The Lafayette Advertiser via AP)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A witness said a plane that crashed in south Louisiana had leveled out its wings before it hit trees and transmission lines and crashed in a fiery heap, according to a preliminary investigation issued Tuesday by federal investigators.

The report by the National Transportation Safety Board did not give a cause for the Dec. 28 plane crash that killed five people on their way to the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. Investigators have repeatedly said it will take about a year for that determination to be made. But the report detailed the last minute of the eight-passenger aircraft as it took off from a Lafayette airfield and crashed about a minute later.

“According to multiple witnesses on the ground, they first heard an airplane flying overhead, at a low altitude," the report said. "Several witnesses stated that it sounded as if both engines were at a high rpm. Multiple witnesses observed the airplane appear out of the low cloud bank in a steep, left-bank turn. One witness stated that the airplane rolled wings level just before it struck the trees and transmission lines."

The six people aboard the eight-passenger aircraft were bound for Atlanta to watch the college football game between Louisiana State University and Oklahoma.

Ian E. Biggs, 51, the plane's pilot; and passengers Robert Vaughn Crisp II, 59; Carley McCord, 30, Michael Walker Vincent, 15, and his mother, Gretchen Vincent, 51, were all killed in the crash. The sixth person aboard — Stephen Wade Berzas, 37 — was taken to the hospital with burns on 75% of his body.

McCord was a well-known sports reporter and the daughter-in-law of the LSU offensive coordinator. The other people on the plane all had connections with a Lafayette-based technology firm called Global Data Systems.

Two postal workers received minor injuries from flying glass inside a post office near where the crash occurred, the report said. Another person outside the post office was seriously injured. The report said the plane struck the woman's parked car, sending it rolling several times before it came to a rest upside down. Then a fire “consumed the car."

Federal investigators have been combing through videos submitted by people who saw the crash and the aftermath. They also have talked to witnesses who saw or heard the plane come down. The engine will be sent back to the manufacturer for further investigation.

According to the preliminary report, the plane was climbing and heading to the right in its assigned heading. Then, about ten seconds after takeoff, it leveled off and started into a left-hand turn as it continued to climb. Eventually it reached an altitude of 925 feet (282 meters) and started to descend while going into a steeper turn.

At one point it reached a “roll angle of 70° left," according to the report.

“That's extremely steep," said John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to the report, the plane then descended at a rate of between 2000 feet (609 meters) and 3000 feet (914 meters) feet per minute. Hansman said normally a plane flying that close to the ground would descend much more slowly — at about 500 feet per minute.

At about 700 feet (215 meters), the air traffic controller issued a low altitude alert but the pilot did not respond, the report said. The plane did not send any emergency transmissions or alerts. The lack of communication doesn't necessarily indicate anything since the pilot would likely be focused on righting the plane, Hansman said.

"At a low altitude emergency the last thing you’re going to spend time doing is talking on the radio,” he said.

When the plane came down, it hit a road and then the parking lot of a post office before finally crashing into a field. Investigators said the path of the wreckage extended for 789 feet (240 meters).

“The wreckage path included fragmented and burned pieces of the airplane and tree debris,” the report said. “The right wing, the outboard left wing, both engines, both elevator controls, the rudder, the instrument panel, and forward cabin separated from the main fuselage and pieces were located in the debris field.”

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