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Fighter jet pilots who attempted to intercept a small private plane flying Sunday in restricted airspace over Washington reported seeing its pilot slumped over and unresponsive, providing a major clue about what might have led to the crash into a Virginia mountain that killed the four people aboard.
The pilots' reports were revealed Monday by three U.S. officials briefed on the matter who were not authorized to discuss details of the military operation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Federal investigators had to hike for several hours to the site of the wreck because of the mountainous terrain, as they tried to unravel the mystery of the Cessna that made a U-turn over Long Island and flew hundreds of miles off its flight path, prompting F-16 fighter jets to scramble at supersonic speed to intercept it.
A sonic boom from the pursuing jets startled residents across Washington and parts of Maryland and Virginia as the warplanes shadowed the unresponsive plane, firing off flares in an unsuccessful effort to gain the pilot's attention.
It was not certain why the plane veered off course, but loss of cabin pressure − which could render the pilot and passengers unconscious − was a possibility, said the plane's owner, who told news outlets his daughter and 2-year-old granddaughter were aboard.
The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement the plane crashed into a forest near rural Montebello, Virginia, around 3:30 p.m. No survivors were found. The National Transportation Safety Board will lead the investigation into the crash, the statement said.
Why the F-16s were scrambled
U.S. Capitol Police officials said they were monitoring the unresponsive pilot along with federal partners as the plane flew nearby on Sunday afternoon. The U.S. Capitol Complex was "briefly placed on an elevated alert until the airplane left the area," police said.
Six jets from three locations were launched, and F-16 fighters from the D.C. National Guard intercepted the Cessna 560 Citation V at about 3:20 p.m. The pilot never responded to attempts to establish communication, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said.
Sonic boom startles region
The intercept caused the sonic boom heard across the Washington region about 3:10 p.m., according to NORAD. F-16 fighter jets were “authorized to travel at supersonic speeds," the agency said. Officials in Bowie, Maryland, and the Annapolis Office of Emergency Management in Maryland said the sound was from an aircraft that had flown out of Joint Base Andrews.
Plane was flying from Tennessee to New York
The plane took off from Elizabethton Municipal Airport in Elizabethton, Tennessee, bound for Long Island MacArthur Airport in New York, the FAA said. It reached Long Island before making its U-turn and flying hundreds of miles before crashing 135 miles southeast of Washington.
Flight tracking sites showed the jet underwent a rapid, spiraling descent, dropping at a rate of more than 30,000 feet per minute before slamming into remote wilderness near the George Washington National Forest. Virginia State Police said officers were notified of the crash shortly before 4 p.m. and that it took rescue workers on foot about four hours to reach the crash site.
Cessna's owners says their family was on board
The Cessna is registered to Encore Motors in Melbourne, Florida, which is owned by Barbara Rumpel and run by her husband John Rumpel. The couple is prominent in Brevard County business circles.
John Rumpel told the New York Times and Newsday that his daughter, Adina Azarian, and 2-year-old granddaughter Aria, as well as Aria's nanny, were among the victims. They were returning to their home in East Hampton on Long Island after visiting his house in North Carolina, he said.
Condolences were posted on Barbara Rumpel's Facebook page. She responded that "my family is gone, my daughter and granddaughter."
Rumpel, a pilot, said he hoped his family didn’t suffer and suggested the plane could have lost pressurization.
The incident brought back memories of a Learjet that lost cabin pressure and flew aimlessly for hundreds of miles with golfer Payne Stewart aboard before crashing into a pasture in South Dakota in 1999. Six people died.
Biden heard the boom
President Joe Biden was playing golf with his brother 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. A White House official said the sound of the boom was faint at the golf course, and that the president had been briefed on the crash.
Contributing: J.D. Gallop, Florida Today; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Virginia plane crash, scrambled F-16s and a sonic boom; what we know