Scrambled F-16s, a sonic boom and plane crash mystery in Virginia: What we know

Federal investigators on Monday hoped to begin unraveling the mystery of a private plane that made a U-turn over Long Island and flew hundreds of miles off its flight path Sunday, prompting F-16 fighter jets to scramble at supersonic speed to intercept the Cessna before it crashed in a Virginia forest, killing four people.

The plane's wayward travel included restricted airspace over the nation's capital. A sonic boom from one of the pursuing jets startled residents across Washington and parts of Maryland and Virginia as the fighters shadowed the unresponsive plane, firing off flares in an ill-fated effort to gain the pilot's attention.

It was not clear why the plane veered off course, but loss of cabin pressure − which could render the pilot and passengers unconscious − was a possibility, the plane's owner said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement the plane crashed into mountainous terrain 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. 

A view of the area in Saint Mary's Wilderness area, Va., on June 5, 2023, where rescue crews are searching for the wreckage of a Cessna Citation that crashed into mountainous terrain near Montebello, Va.

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.

Graphics: Cessna's flight, sonic boom of pursing F-16 jets

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.

Forest Service worker David Whitmore, center, consults a map with Augusta county emergency management worker Patrick Lam, right, along with Aaron Bennington, left, and Brent Foltz, rear, on June 5, 2023, near the plane crash site in the George Washington National Forest.

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.

A Cessna 560 Citation V plane crashed June 4, 2023, about 15 miles south of Staunton, Va.

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, and John Rumpel told The Washington Post that his "entire family" was onboard the Cessna, including his daughter, a grandchild and a nanny. 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

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