HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - A plane crash claimed the lives of three men at Huntsville International Airport Wednesday afternoon.
We now have more information about the type of aircraft and the occupants, but many more questions remain.
The plane and passengers
The plane, a 10-seater, non-commercial Westwind II aircraft, had three passengers, all certified pilots: William Christopher II, 57 of Center Point; Robin Gary Smith, 60 of Yukon, Okla. and Kenneth Lynn Rousseau, 67 of Harpersville.
Two of the men were company contract pilots for the owner of the plane, Synfuels Holdings Finance, LLC, out of Birmingham.
According to the flight tower audio tape, the three men set out Wednesday to practice two instrument landing approaches. In those approaches, pilots focus on guiding the plane to a precise altitude above the runway. The tape indicated that the pilots would fly to Birmingham after the two exercises.
Initial reports from the Federal Aviation Administration and Huntsville International Airport reveal the aircraft was trying to depart the airport when it caught on fire and crashed just to the right of the runway as it was taking off at 2:21 p.m. Wednesday.
“By witness accounts, the airplane climbed no higher than 50 to 100 feet off the ground and was observed to bank hard or steep to the right,” National Transportation Safety Board Senior Air Safety Investigator Tim Monville said.
The tower audio indicated that no distress calls were made prior to the crash.
Officials say rescue workers were on the scene of the crash within moments of the plane coming down, due to an earlier emergency that had been cleared just minutes before the crash. Those rescue workers radioed the “all clear” from the first emergency just one minute before the crash.
Huntsville International Airport was immediately closed when the crash was reported. At least 14 flights into and out of Huntsville International Airport were canceled while crews worked the scene, according to data from flyhuntsville.com.
A lengthy investigation begins
Investigators with the NTSB arrived in Huntsville Thursday morning to begin documenting the accident site. They anticipate the full investigation will last for at least a year.
NTSB investigator Monville said they don’t yet know why the plane crashed, but they do know the facts from witnesses.
Investigators spent Thursday searching for the cockpit voice recorder, but had yet to recover it, at last report.
The next step for investigators will be to comb through the Westwind II’s maintenance records.
“We have to look at a lot of different systems of the airplane to show what systems could have caused a discrepancy, if any, and so we’ve got to rule them out,” said Monville.
Once they finish their on-site work, the NTSB will then move the plane to a secure location for further investigation.
Though the full investigation could take up to a year to complete, the NTSB investigators plan to have a preliminary report published in ten days.