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Crashed plane still in river, and it's up to owner to get it out; NTSB investigating what caused incident

By Dan Miller

Posted 10/7/19

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash-landing of a Piper Malibu Mirage in the Susquehanna River near Middletown late Friday afternoon, as the aircraft was approaching …

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Crashed plane still in river, and it's up to owner to get it out; NTSB investigating what caused incident


The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash-landing of a Piper Malibu Mirage in the Susquehanna River near Middletown late Friday afternoon, as the aircraft was approaching Harrisburg International Airport to land.

NTSB spokesman Terry Williams confirmed for the Press & Journal on Monday afternoon that the NTSB is investigating, with assistance from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Williams said he expects NTSB to have more information to release on the accident this week.

The six-seat single engine aircraft is still in the river, visible from Water Street off Route 441 in Londonderry Township just east of Middletown.

Two people were in the aircraft, and both were rescued.

One person had a minor injury and the other occupant was not injured, but both were taken by ambulance Friday to the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, said Tim Edwards, executive director of HIA.

According to Edwards and FAA spokesman Jim Peters, it is up to the owner of the aircraft to get the aircraft out of the water.

Edwards said the company that insures the aircraft for the owner “will be in charge of the recovery” of the airplane from the river.

The aircraft had been in the river at least 96 hours as of Tuesday night. However, nothing is leaking from the plane, John Repetz, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, told the Press & Journal.

“There are no environmental impacts or concerns at this time,” he said in an email. “DEP continues to monitor the situation and will become involved if necessary.”

Absent a deluge of rain beyond that in the immediate forecast, the airplane should not be going anywhere until it is retrieved by the owner, Edwards said.

“It is caught on the rocks and the water is very shallow. It is kind of wedged in,” which prevents it from drifting off, he said.

The plane is registered with Barjack Aviation in Islamorada, Florida. The Press & Journal left a phone message with the apparent owner of the aircraft — whose identity has not been announced — but the apparent owner did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Under investigation

Peters said that the FAA, which learned of the incident from the air traffic control tower at HIA, was at the scene Friday night and that an FAA representative went out on a boat to examine the aircraft.

The FAA found “substantial damage” to the aircraft, leading the agency to determine that the incident was an accident.

In the case of an aviation accident, the NTSB takes the lead role in the investigation, Peters said.

The FAA will continue to investigate as well, “but we are doing it on behalf of the NTSB,” Peters said.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency that is not affiliated with the U.S. Department of Transportation or with any of its agencies, including the FAA, according to the NTSB website.

Under federal law, the NTSB is responsible for investigating and determining the probable cause of every civil aviation accident in the United States, as well as accidents involving certain public-use aircraft, such as those owned by state and local governments, according to the NTSB website.

Peters said that the full extent of the damage to the aircraft, such as damage to the underbelly, cannot be learned until the airplane is out of the water.

However, the aircraft will require a “major repair” simply due to the fact that it has been submerged in the water, similar to a car or a truck that is damaged by being in a flood, Peters said.

Rarity in recent years

Edwards has been in the aviation field for 32 years, including time spent working at an airport in New Hampshire. He handled a few aircraft accidents while in New Hampshire, but none involving a water rescue such as this one.

To his knowledge, this is a first for HIA, where Edwards has been executive director since November 2003.

“Aviation is the safest form of travel. It’s not all that surprising” that this has not happened here before, Edwards said.

There are four cases of small planes going down in the Susquehanna River in the 1990s, according to an article posted by PennLive.

A pilot since 1978, Edwards said that pilots “practice emergency procedures all the time. It becomes kind of second nature as to what needs to be done in the event there is an engine failure,” which officials believe is what happened in this case.

Pilots every two years must undergo a flight review under the supervision of a flight instructor, to make sure that pilots are still proficient in operating an aircraft. Proficiency in emergency procedures is part of that mandatory biennial  evaluation, Edwards said.

“There is a lot of safety training built into the pilot certification program. It’s a significant part of your basic pilot training program,” Edwards added.

Edwards said he himself has never had an actual engine failure while piloting a plane, however “you practice engine-out procedures all the time.”

Lending a hand

On Friday, rescue crews reached the airplane by using the boat launch off South Union Street in Middletown, which was also being used as a staging area for emergency responders.

Jeremy Rosati was on the scene on a boat in the river. He and his wife, Randi, live in Royalton. Jeremy got into his boat to help point river rescue personnel in the right direction.

“We travel the water every weekend to Poplar Island, so we know the way around the river,” he said. “We heard all the sirens and saw the helicopters flying and live only a block away, so decided to take a drive.”

The boat landing was filled with police and firefighters, he said, and the rescue boats were getting stuck because the river is so low.

“They pretty much had to get out of the boat and push,” Rosati said.

The plane wasn’t really floating, he said. It was touching the bottom of the river because the water is only about 2 1/2 feet deep.

“My family has a cabin on Poplar Island, which is the island right in front of where it landed. As a kid, we always talked about ‘what if a plane crashed,’ being so close to the airport. And now it actually happened and I got to see it this close,” he said.