Mid-air collision kills two in Weyer's Cave
The two occupants of a single-engine Cessna airplane are dead after after a mid-air collision with a medevac helicopter near the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport in the Augusta County community of Weyers Cave.
Jacob H. Kiser, 19, of the Rockingham County town of Grottoes, and Jason A. Long, 32, of the Shenandoah County town of Edinburg, died at the scene, according to a State Police release.
Police say the accident occurred at 2:27pm Friday, December 31 as the helicopter, known as "AirCare 5," was returning to its base at the Airport after taking a patient to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville. Although one skid on the copter was damaged, it landed with no injury to the occupants, a pilot and two medical personnel.
The four-seat Cessna Skyhawk, however, suffered serious damage and crashed. State police have notified both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration, and investigators from both agencies have arrived on the scene.
The medevac craft, a 2005 Eurocopter, is owned by a firm called PHI, Inc. which operates across the U.S. and 43 foreign countries. On board was pilot Paul Weve, co-pilot and flight nurse Joseph Root, and flight nurse Carolyn Booke.
According to an updated release, the 1967 Cessna was registered to Michael Price of Elkton, but Price was not aboard the plane when it crashed.
Media accounts from Staunton and Waynesboro indicate that Long was a flight instructor with a history of All-American track success from his days as a JMU student. Kiser was a described as intelligent freshman at Hampden-Sydney College near Farmville. The reports suggest that various witnesses on the ground some aspect of what happened.
There's no official word yet on what caused the collision. However, it comes just 17 months after an eerily similar incident in New York that could provide some insights. On August 8, 2009, a single-engine Piper overtook and struck a tourist helicopter as the two craft were flying south along the Hudson River. The three people on the plane and the six aboard the copter died when the wreckage plummeted into the River.
As in the Shenandoah collision, the New York crash occurred mid-day under clear skies. Investigations by the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board produced a variety of blames including mixed messages regarding the culpability of an air-traffic controller whose delay in providing radio information to the plane has been ascribed to two personal phone calls he conducted in defiance of federal rules.
An Italian tourist on a tour boat captured the entire Hudson River incident on video, a surreal situation given the extensive experience of the pilots involved as well as the day's good weather and clear visibility.
As it turned out, the Hudson crash appeared to be largely a case of each craft traveling in each other's blind spot over a waterway where both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters would routinely operate in the same airspace. The NTSB post-mortem cited not only the controller's personal phone calls but also "the inherent limitations of the see-and-avoid concept."
A working group convened after the accident issued a recommendation for northbound traffic hug one shore and southbound traffic hug the other. Other rules in the wake of the Hudson collision included standardizing radio frequencies, enacting a 140-knot speed limit, and requiring pilots to activate anti-collision devices.
Central Virginia flight instructor Skip Degan, who occasionally shoots aerial photographs for the Hook, notes that a key difference in this investigation is the ability of investigators to interview survivors, the three on board the helicopter.
"The investigation would normally take a year or so to put together," says Degan, "but with eyewitnesses on board and on the ground it will be expedited. This will enable the NTSB to more readily determine the probable cause of the accident."
Like the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, the Shenandoah airport has a paved runway that's about 6,000 feet long. But there's a critical difference: Shenandoah has no control tower. Taking off and landing at such an "uncontrolled airport" puts the burden on the pilots to see and avoid traffic.
Degan suggests, though he concedes it's just speculation at this point, that the position of the low winter sun may have played a role. "Taking off on Runway 23 at that time of the day may well have obscured the forward visibility of the two in the [airplane]," says Degan, "where the helicopter may have been in their field of vision."
–updated 8:34am January 1, 2011 with ownership information and 6:36pm with names of the deceased and then again at 9:02pm with a little discussion about the 2009 Hudson collision. Updated yet again at 9:16am January 2 with Degan perspective and again at 1:11pm with info about the deceased.