The pilot of a private plane that flew over the nation’s capital amid a military jet-caused sonic boom was a retired Southwest Airlines captain with more than 25,000 hours of flying experience, according to The Washington Post.
The pilot, Jeff Hefner, died along with his three passengers when the Cessna 560 Citation V crashed Sunday in the western Virginia mountains. When the flight went rogue over Long Island and began heading for restricted airspace above Washington, D.C., the military scrambled F-16 fighter jets at supersonic speeds, causing a boom heard across the heavily-populated region.
The Post identified Hefner, whose career with Southwest spanned 25 years, as investigators began reconstructing what transpired before the mysterious crash. Early indications point to a medical issue or lack of oxygen in the plane’s cabin, based on a fighter jet pilot sent to intercept reporting that Hefner was slumped over.
Giovanni Atiles Garcia, a pilot who flew about 30 flights with Hefner, told the Post that the veteran pilot was highly safety conscious and employed standard practices from his commercial days with Southwest in his private flights. Those practices are much more thorough than what’s required when flying smaller aircraft.
In addition to his certification as an airline transport pilot, the highest and most difficult to obtain, Hefner was certified as a flight instructor and an aircraft mechanic. He also had recently obtained the Federal Aviation Administration’s highest medical certificate, according to the Post.
“Captain Jeff Hefner was a servant and an advocate throughout his life as a professional pilot,” the Southwest pilots union said in a statement. Hefner had served on the union’s board of directors.
“Jeff was a defender of his fellow pilots’ safety, careers, and family. We offer our deepest condolences to his wife, his family, and his friends. The aviation community has lost a true champion.”
The Dallas-based airline said in a statement that it considered Hefner to be “a longtime member of the Southwest family.”
“We’re deeply saddened by Sunday’s tragic event and our heart is with the many affected,” the statement said.
The plane Hefner was piloting departed eastern Tennessee Sunday afternoon but quickly lost contact with air traffic controllers before turning around just before its stated destination on Long Island. The jet then headed for the highly-sensitive airspace about 34,000 feet over key federal government sites.
Military pilots said they saw Hefner slumped over in the cockpit, and experts speculate that the plane lost air pressure, leaving Hefner and three others on the plane unconscious. When a pilot is unresponsive, a plane continues to fly on autopilot along the planned route until it runs out of fuel.
The plane was carrying Adina Azarian, who sold real estate in New York and Long Island, and her 2-year-old daughter, Aria, according to a statement from Keller Williams NYC, a franchise of Keller Williams Realty Inc. Also aboard was an unidentified nanny. John Rumpel, whose Florida-based Encore Motors of Melbourne Inc. owns the plane, had adopted Azarian, he told the Post.
The plane was destroyed in the crash, making accident reconstruction more tedious for the National Transportation Safety Board.
Investigators may only be able to outline the most likely scenarios without being able to pinpoint their origins, according to aviation experts and prior accidents reviewed by Bloomberg.
“It’s very difficult,” said Roger Cox, a former NTSB investigator who was an airline pilot. “When you have a high-energy impact, there’s so little evidence remaining that you usually can’t find anything useful in the wreckage to help explain the accident.”
A health emergency seems less likely because there is no evidence the passengers tried to intervene, Cox said. But there’s no way to test bodies for a lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, after an accident.
In the 1999 crash that killed golfer Payne Stewart, three other passengers and two pilots, NTSB concluded theLearjet 35 lost pressure as it climbed, a similar scenario to Sunday’s crash. After taking off from Orlando on a flight to Dallas, the pilots lost consciousness, and the plane flew more than 1,000 miles to Aberdeen, S.D., before running out of fuel.
Investigators couldn’t determine why. They also weren’t able to say why the two pilots weren’t able to use the emergency oxygen system, which should have given them time to address the issue and descend to safer altitudes.
After a Sept. 5, 2014, crash into the Caribbean killed a New York real estate developer and his wife, NTSB investigators concluded that he suffered hypoxia while flying at 28,000 feet from Rochester, N.Y., to Naples, Fla.
In that case, the NTSB recovered aircraft computer components in the sea that indicated problems with the single-engine, turboprop Socata TMB 700′s pressurization system. The pilot was confused during radio calls, a symptom of lack of oxygen, the NTSB said. But they weren’t able to say why he didn’t don his oxygen mask when the problem began.
The jet that crashed Sunday apparently had a crash-proof cockpit sound recorder installed, though it hasn’t been found yet, the NTSB said Wednesday.
Such accidents are rare. The NTSB reports only a handful of fatal accidents due to pressurization-system problems in the past 15 years.
When they occur, however, they can quickly turn deadly because the lack of oxygen to the brain can confuse pilots and give them a false sense of security.
“Hypoxia is insidious,” Cox said. “If you continue, after a while you lose the ability to make judgments.”
The first indication of an emergency occurred about 15 minutes after the Cessna took off from Elizabethton Municipal Airport in Tennessee, according to NTSB.
As the plane reached about 31,000 feet, an air traffic controller attempted to radio the pilot, according to NTSB. There was no response.
The risks grow dramatically as a plane climbs. At that altitude, a pilot would have to respond quickly to a lack of air pressure, the NTSB wrote in its report on Stewart’s crash.
“Research has shown that a period of as little as eight seconds without supplemental oxygen following rapid depressurization to about 30,000 feet may cause a drop in oxygen saturation that can significantly impair cognitive functioning and increase the amount of time required to complete complex tasks,” the report said.
Bloomberg contributed to this story.