Five people were killed in an airplane crash at the Macon County Airport in Franklin, N.C. Thursday, March 15, when a twin-engine Cessna Citation 501 mid-size executive jet exploded just off the runway following an unusual landing.
Terry Bates, Macon County Emergency Services Coordinator, stated Thursday afternoon at approximately 4:45 p.m. that at least three people were killed in the accident, but that it was possible there would be more accounted for as the investigation continued.
By the time the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released the bodies, the total fatalities had climbed to five after two more bodies were pulled from the wreckage. Authorities confirmed later in the afternoon that two couples, sets of husband and wife, and the daughter of one of the couples, were killed in the incident.
The North Carolina State Highway Patrol released the names of the five people who died in the jet crash late Friday afternoon. According to the Highway Patrol, Bogdan and Anna Jakuobowski, along with Peter and Ewa Wisniewski and their daughter, Victoria, were killed in the accident.
Angela Kinsland, Macon County 911 Coordinator, reported that the executive jet apparently approached the runway at too steep of an angle at approximately 1:45 in the afternoon. She said the pilot was on his second attempt, and tried to correct the landing but touched the right wing to the runway, flipping the plane over and causing it to explode on impact. Emergency and fire personnel responded and extinguished the flames.
The Cessna Citation, pictured, was registered to Bogdan Jakubowski of Venice, Florida as number N700T, and had departed from Venice Municipal Airport at 11:49 a.m. for a two-hour flight. The jet was scheduled to arrive at the Macon County airport at 1:40 p.m. The mid-size jet could carry as many as eight passengers.
Neil Hoppe (A&P, FCC, IA), owner and operator of Franklin Aviation, which manages the Macon County Airport, stated later that the Cessna Citation came in at a steep angle and at a relatively high speed — possibly to avoid small gusts of wind that could carry the jet upward or downward if it were to land at a lower speed.
Hoppe commented on the cause of the crash Thursday afternoon, “The report that I got is, on landing, he [the pilot] actually touched down about midway down the runway and apparently attempted to do a go-around because of landing too long. And for some reason— no one knows yet until the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) does their reporting— but the aircraft veered to the right, the right wing struck the ground, flipped the airplane upside down, and it immediately burst into flames.”
Hoppe said that he had two people on duty at the time that rushed to the scene within “a minute,” hoping that someone had perhaps been thrown clear of the airplane. “But,” said Hoppe, “that wasn’t the case.” He stated that both people on duty at the airport said that “he looked like he was going at a pretty good clip,” Hoppe stated.
Hoppe stated that the landing was unusual because the Cessna did not touch down until about halfway down the stretch of runway. Weather was not a factor, according to Hoppe. He speculated that the pilot may have been attempting to take off again to make a second attempt at landing, but over-corrected and dipped the right wing. According to both Hoppe and Bates, the right wing caught on the runway and the jet fuel exploded as the Cessna flipped over.
Hoppe said that the explosion and fire were caused by the jet fuel on board the airplane. “…and it burned,” said Hoppe. “The fire was so intense, the fuel burned, and then they started getting some minor explosions, probably oxygen tanks, tires heating up, blowing out. So they couldn’t get near the impact [area], or aircraft itself.”
“They could see no survivors or any sign of it,” Hoppe said.
According to eyewitnesses that were on the scene immediately after the accident, the Cessna was almost completely destroyed from the impact and explosion, leaving only the tail section nearly intact. Macon County Emergency Services and the North Carolina Highway Patrol managed the situation and preliminary investigation Thursday and secured the scene.
Hoppe stated that he could not say what caused the pilot to crash. “That would be pure speculation,” Hoppe said, “Without sitting in the right seat of the airplane, you don’t know what circumstances the pilot’s dealing with. The weather was clear. There was no other traffic in the immediate area of the airport.” Hoppe said the medical examiner is looking at the remains to try to determine potential causes.
Hoppe noted that he did check his records going back three years, and that this airplane had never been to the Macon County Airport before. “So this would have been his first time in here,” Hoppe said, and a lot of times people coming from Florida are thrown off by the “visual effect” of the mountains compared to the flat geography of Florida. “But we have a GPS approach into the airport that we’ve had for a couple of years now,” Hoppe said, “and the jet pilots love it.” He said that the GPS system displays on the pilot’s cockpit screen so that they can “follow the dotted lines, and it will bring you right in.”
Hoppe said that they had discovered four bodies at the crash, but that there could be more casualties. “We don’t know yet. First we thought two, then we thought three, then we thought four, so until the medical examiner is done, there’s just no way of knowing” how many people were killed in the fiery crash.
“It’s most unfortunate,” Hoppe said. “I’ve been around this airport now for fifteen years, and this is the first fatality that we’ve experienced.” He estimated that there have only been three, maybe four, airplane crashes at the Macon County Airport over that time period, not including Thursday’s accident, but that most of them were minor incidents. Within a half hour authorities confirmed that there were five fatalities.
Hoppe said that he had not experienced anything like this in many years. But he mentioned that he was with Eastern Airlines when the Eastern Flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades on the night of December 29, 1972. “I had to spend the night pulling people out of that wreckage,” crash involved a Lockheed L-1011 Tristar 1 passenger jet, and according to NTSB reports, was a result of the flight crew’s failure to recognize a deactivation of the autopilot during their attempt to troubleshoot a malfunction of the landing gear position indicator system. Flight 401 slowly lost its altitude and crashed while the flight crew was preoccupied with a problem with the landing gear. At the time, it was the first crash of a wide-body jet in the United States, and the most deadly.
Hoppe commented that there are thousands of flights that operate out of the Macon County Airport each year, and that the odds of something like this happening are “astronomical.” He said everyone at the airport was feeling terrible about the crash. “And to have someone killed in the process, that’s devastating,” Hoppe said.
Hoppe added that one of the wheels from the jet was found much further down the runway, but that he was uncertain whether the wheel came detached from the jet during the landing, which may have been a factor, or was debris from the explosion following the accident. The NTSB would be investigating the crash going forward, said Hoppe, but he speculated that the final report on the accident would indicate that it was caused by pilot error.
Hoppe said that Franklin Aviation and the Macon County Airport Authority made the decision to shut down the airport until FAA officials arrived to take over the investigation into the crash. The site is being handled “like a crime scene. You just don’t do anything or touch anything until they finish their investigation,” said Hoppe. Authorities secured the airport and left the scene as it was, but with debris such as the wheel from the jet in the runway, it was necessary to declare the airport closed until the FAA clears it for operation and allows it to reopen.
The runway at the Macon County Airport was extended last year from 4,400 feet to 5,000 feet to accommodate larger executive jets and improve safety measures for landing. But the extended stretch of runway “unfortunately didn’t help this fellow,” Hoppe said, because this crash could likely be attributed to “apparent loss of control, for what reason, I don’t know.”
Neil Hoppe Interview Part 2