Crash witness: from wing tip to wing tip the plane 'was straight up and down'

Owatonna airport
An aerial view of the Owatonna Degner Regional Airport.
Image courtesy of Google Earth

Brian Mechura isn't a pilot. He's a welder at Rare Aircraft, based at the Owatonna airport. But he says it was clear something was seriously wrong yesterday when a Hawker 800 first touched down on the tarmac in front of him.

"He tried a go around, which is when you land and you know you are not going to make it so you throttle back up and take back off. From where I was to the end of the runway was about a mile but it looked like he got up a little bit but when he lifted off the right wing was too heavy. He got it up so the whole airplane from wing tip to wing tip was straight up and down and, the power from the left engine must have forced it around and then it nosed straight in."

The plane took out a set of airport lights and hit the ground a few thousand feet west of the Owatonna airport, which sits right beside Interstate 35. Three Air Force fighter planes are mounted on a swooping pedestal at its entrance.

He [the pilot] just said they'll be landing, they'll be needing fuel, and was wondering where to park

The twin engine charter jet flew from Atlantic City, New Jersey, on a routine business trip, bringing customers from three East Coast development firms to Vericon, a glass manufacturer on the south side of Owatonna. The six passengers and two crew members had taken off several hours before, and were expected to make a return flight later in the day.

Instead, tragedy struck.

The plane flew toward a line of thunderstorms blowing across southern Minnesota. Other pilots in Owatonna said the two pilots from Pennsylvania were probably using the airport's instrument landing system, which would have required them to approach the runway from the east, perhaps with a slight tailwind.

Mechanic Cameron Smith said he talked to the pilots by radio as they neared the airport and that everything sounded normal.

"He just said they'll be landing, they'll be needing fuel, and was wondering where to park," he said.

Smith said he was walking out of the Rare Aircraft offices to meet the plane at the company's fuel pumps when he realized it had gone down.

'Amazed' there were survivors
Cameron Smith, a mechanic at the Owatonna airport, ran to the scene shortly after the crash. "I was amazed to hear that someone survived," he said. "There was no fuselage. There were just parts." The only survivor died within hours of the crash.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Smith and other airport workers called 911 and headed for the scene, arriving at the wreckage shortly before police and fire personnel. They found seven of the plane's occupants dead, although one woman had survived the impact.

She was taken to the Owatonna city hospital in what officials described as "very critical" condition. State Department of Public Safety spokesman Doug Neville said he got word that she had died about 1 p.m., several hours after she'd been found.

By sundown, a team of 14 National Transportation Safety Board members had been dispatched to Owatonna. Emergency responders had already recovered the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder -- the so-called black boxes -- from the crash site. They were flown back to Washington D.C. on the same plane that brought the NTSB investigators.

NTSB lead investigator John Lovell said they would be examined in a lab as soon as practical.

"We will also have the FAA assisting and we will also be joined by the FBI. The particular group from the FBI will be assisting us in documenting the wreckage because they have the technology to do it pretty efficiently."

Foul play is not suspected in the crash.

Sadly, crashes like the one in Owatonna are not uncommon. There have been two fatal aviation accidents at the same airport in the last six years. Four died in a crash here in 2004.

The NTSB reports there have been 70 accidents and more than 40 people killed nationwide in the last 10 years aboard so-called "on demand" aircraft. That includes charter flights like the one that crashed Thursday.

The remains of the dead have been taken to the offices of the Dakota County Medical Examiner in Hastings. Next of kin are traveling to Minnesota to help identify the victims. The head of the charter company that owned the plane has also flown to Minnesota.

National Transportation Safety Board member Steven Chealender will be arriving in southern Minnesota to attend to the investigation today. NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said his agency would likely have more details on the investigation later this morning.

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