By MICHAEL BALSAMO and ASHLEY THOMAS (Associated Press)
WASHINGTON (AP) — An erratic and unresponsive business jet that flew over the nation’s capital Sunday afternoon prompted the military to fly in a fighter jet before the plane crashed in Virginia, officials said. The fighter jet caused a loud boom that was heard in the capital region.
Hours later, police said rescuers had arrived at the crash site in a rural area of the Shenandoah Valley and that no survivors had been found.
The Federal Aviation Administration says the Cessna Citation took off from Elizabethton, Tennessee on Sunday and was headed to MacArthur Airport on Long Island. Inexplicably, the plane turned over New York’s Long Island and flew a straight path over DC before crashing into mountainous terrain near Montebello, Virginia around 3:30 p.m.
It was not immediately clear why the plane was unresponsive, why it crashed or how many people were on board. The plane flew directly over the nation’s capital, even though it was technically flying over some of the most restricted airspace in the country.
A US official confirmed to The Associated Press that military jets rushed to respond to the small plane, which was not responding to radio transmissions and later crashed. 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 planes from the 113th Fighter Wing, from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, were the first to reach the Cessna to begin attempts to contact the pilot. Two F-16s from New Jersey and two from South Carolina also responded to the incident.
Flight tracking sites showed the plane went into a rapid spiral descent, at one point descending at more than 30,000 feet per minute before crashing in the wilderness of St. Mary’s.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command later said in a statement that the F-16 was cleared to travel at supersonic speeds, which caused a sonic boom that was heard in Washington and parts of Virginia and Maryland.
In Fairfax, Virginia, Travis Thornton was sitting on a couch next to his wife, Hannah, and had just started recording himself playing guitar and harmonica when they were startled by a loud noise and a thud that can be heard in the video. The couple jumped in to investigate. Thornton tweeted that they checked in with their children upstairs, then went outside to check on the house and talk to neighbors.
“During this event, NORAD aircraft also used flares – which may have been visible to the public – in an attempt to attract the pilot’s attention,” the NORAD statement said. “Missiles are used with the utmost care for the safety of intercepted aircraft and people on the ground. The rockets burn quickly and completely, and there is no danger to people on the ground when they are deployed.”
Virginia State Police said officers were notified of the possible crash shortly before 4 p.m., and rescuers arrived on the scene on foot about 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 niece, her nanny and the pilot were on board the plane. They were returning to their home in East Hampton, Long Island, after visiting his home in North Carolina, he said.
Rumpel, a pilot, told the newspaper he did not have much information from authorities, but suggested the plane may have lost pressure.
“It was descending at 20,000 feet per minute, and no one could survive a crash at that speed,” Rumpel told the newspaper.
A woman who identified herself as Barbara Rumpel, listed as the company’s president, said she had no comment Sunday when contacted 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 on board. The plane crashed in a pasture in South Dakota and six people died.
President Joe Biden was playing golf at Joint Base Andrews around the time the fighter jet took off. Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the US Secret Service, said the incident had no impact on the president’s movements on 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 aircraft noise was low at Joint Base Andrews.
Associated Press writers Chris Megerian and Zeke Miller in Washington and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.