Witness describes Palatka plane crash that killed married couple

Piper crashed on takeoff after refueling at Kay Larkin Airport

PALATKA, Fla. – A married couple from Alachua County died Thursday night when their small plane crashed in Palatka, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

The Piper PA-24 aircraft crashed upon takeoff just before 8:30 p.m. at Palatka-Kay Larkin Airport on Reid Street, near County Road 216.

On Friday morning, the FHP identified the victims as David Niblett and Kimberly Niblett, both 44, of Archer.

Warren Cilliers, of Cilliers Aviation, witnessed the crash and described the terrifying scene, saying the aircraft tried to do a short takeoff.

"The nose came up, but the aircraft did not lift off the ground until a few seconds later," Cilliers said. "It was going super slow, and it was really close to a stall, and I was expecting the nose to come down for them to pick up speed, but it never did as it was climbing up."

WATCH: Entire interview with witness |
NTSB investigates fatal Palatka plane crash

Cilliers said the angle of the plane's ascent kept getting steeper until the left wing stalled about 100 or 150 feet in the air.

"He went into a spiral and crashing to the ground," Cilliers said. "It is something that you never want to see."

He said it was very loud as the plane came down but after the impact, "it got very quiet."

He said it was immediately clear that no one could have survived the crash, but he called 911 and ran over to the crash to see if "by some miracle somebody survived."

But, Cilliers said, no one responded to his calls.

"It was very silent," he said. "There was no movement at all."

Airport manager John Youell said Palatka emergency responders were on scene immediately, but the couple coudn't be saved.

"I’m very proud of the first responders," Youell said. "If there’s a better emergency response team, I’d be amazed."

NTSB investigates

The National Transportation Safety Board arrived Friday to take over the investigation. NTSB spokesman Dan Boggs said weather was not a factor and David Niblett's family said he was an experienced pilot. 

The airport manager said the couple flew in from Gainesville and were stopping for fuel. Authorities said as part of the investigation, the airport has a hold on the fuel so it can be inspected, which is protocol.

Over the next two days, federal investigators will remove the wreckage, then examine all systems: fuel, mechanical, electrical and the wing flaps.

Until the wreckage is cleared, one runway will remain closed.

The plane was manufactured in 1959 and the NTSB said it was well-maintained. No flight plan was filed.

The preliminary crash report is expected to be posted in two weeks. But aviation expert Ed Booth said it could take a year and half to two years before there are definitive answers.

"Palatka is a very busy airport with a lot of recreational flying. Recreational flying, of course, isn't as safe as airline travel," Booth said.

WATCH:  Full interview with Ed Booth on The Morning Show

Booth said the investigators will be busy from the start as they look at many possibilities.

"They will look into the pilot's background, how the aircraft was loaded, whether the pilot had any sort of substances in his system," Booth said. "It's standard protocol that the NTSB goes through in every airplane crash like this."

3rd crash at airport this year

The NTSB said investigators were aware of two other crashes at Kay Larkin Airport.

News4Jax covered a March 6 crash when two people were hurt when their seaplane struck a tree, power line and home on Reid Street on approach to the airport. Ten days later, two planes crashed attempting to land at the same time. No one was injured in that incident. 

"There’s no common thread among the accident," Youell said. "One ran out of gas, two, another plane landed on top of another.  And now this one. There’s just no common thread."

Kay Larkin is what is known as an uncontrolled airport, meaning there's no control tower. Pilots can land, day or night, without coordinating with anyone on the ground.

Yet people who use the airport regularly feel it's safe.

"I come here pretty much every weekend," Cindy Gicala said. "I’m one of the skydive instructors at Skydive Palatka. I’m pretty much here all the time."

Gicala said that while she’s aware of the other crashes over the last five years, she’s never seen a safety issue at the airport.

Federal aviation authorities said they review safety trends at airports regularly, and the history of Palatka's airport would be part of this investigation.

About the Authors:

Florida-born multi-media journalist pays special attention to issues in St. Johns County.

Scott is a multi-Emmy Award Winning Anchor and Reporter, who also hosts the “Going Ringside With The Local Station” Podcast. Scott has been a journalist for 25 years, covering stories including six presidential elections, multiple space shuttle launches and dozens of high-profile murder trials.