JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When a business plane flew over the nation’s capital Sunday, military fighter jets were scrambling to intercept the aircraft because there was no response from the pilot, who was spotted slumped over.
The airplane that crashed near the George Washington National Forest in Virginia was a Cessna Citation jet, which was in Jacksonville twice in the past week at Craig Airport. The plane was destined for Long Island, New York.
Before the crash, there was no communication with the pilot as the aircraft approached the airspace over Washington D.C.
The lack of response led to military F-16 Fighting Falcons scrambling to intercept the plane, causing a sonic boom as the jets reached speeds exceeding Mach 1.
According to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the F-16 pilot set off flairs to get the Cessna pilot’s attention, but that pilot was unresponsive. It’s unclear if the four passengers were also unresponsive.
No survivors were found after the plane crash.
Wealthy East Hampton real estate agent Adina Azarian and her 2-year-old daughter were killed, along with their nanny and the pilot.
While Randy Reep is a popular Jacksonville defense attorney, he’s also a former fighter jet pilot with extensive experience when it comes to intercepting unresponsive aircraft.
“We train to do something that I suspect most of us hope we never have to do,” Reep said. “It was an airplane that looks like it was going to violate a temporary flight restriction. Flying into the command center of the Washington DC area and you have to prevent that.”
Aerial intercepts are nothing new, but when an unresponsive aircraft is headed in the direction of the nation’s capital, the United States military can’t rule out the possibility of a terror attack.
“That is why those intercepts are a little bit more intense because the consequences of that can be very severe,” Reep said.
He also said fighter pilots have no idea what they are intercepting until after they are in the air and can get a visual on the aircraft.
“I would suspect here, they probably knew that aircraft was heading in that direction for some period of time and gave them a heads up, but it is often that you’re scrambling into a jet, and you have no idea what you’re going after,” Reep said.
An incident similar to this happened in 1999 when a plane carrying pro golfer Payne Stuart crashed. The plane left Orlando and was headed to Texas when it went unresponsive and continued to fly on autopilot before running out of fuel and crashing in South Dakota.
Military jets were scrambled before the plane crashed. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that everyone on board was incapacitated from oxygen loss after the plane depressurized.
“The vast majority of these tragic ones are often an incapacitated aviator having no intent to do anything with ill will, but that’s why you put fighters on them to determine what’s going in the cockpit if you have the ability to do so,” Reep said.
Reep said scrambled fighter jets will often stay with the plane as it descends to the ground and crashes.
Investigators are working to determine if everyone on board the Cessna plane lost oxygen while it was in flight.
According to aviation expert Ed Booth, if the plane lost compression while in flight, everyone on board would have died within 30 seconds, which is long before the plane went down.
In some cases, fighter pilots can be commanded to open fire on an unresponsive airplane depending on what visual information has been communicated about the plane and the pilot.