A woman and her daughter visiting family in Banner Elk, North Carolina, died Sunday in a plane crash after military jets scrambled to catch up with the flight and caused a supersonic boom over the Washington, D.C., area when the flight path entered restricted airspace.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation.
“I want to express our deepest condolences to the family members of the loved ones who died in that crash,” said John Kirby, National Security Council spokesman. “No one wants to hear that and we need to keep them front and center.”
The plane belonged to John and Barbara Rumpel, a couple who owns Encore Motors of Melborne, Inc., a company based in Melbourne, Florida. They also own a home in Banner Elk.
John Rumpel confirmed to reporters that his daughter, 2-year-old granddaughter, her nanny and a pilot were on the plane. Officials have not yet named who was on the aircraft.
Reached by phone Monday morning, Rumpel confirmed to McClatchy that his daughter and granddaughter had been visiting him in Banner Elk before getting on the plane to return to New York.
“It was a great trip,” he said, his voice cracking.
A woman in the background told him “don’t do this,” and Rumpel apologized, saying he was advised not to speak with any more media, and hung up the phone.
From a public perspective, the first sign of trouble came from a loud explosion that echoed across the D.C. metropolitan area Sunday afternoon. Calls to 911 flooded in from Annapolis, Maryland, to Fairfax, Virginia.
Almost immediately, emergency officials from various local offices began tweeting that there was a loud boom, but no threat to the public.
Then, Annapolis’ Office of Emergency Management confirmed the explosion was supersonic: “The loud boom that was heard across the DMV area was caused by an authorized DOD flight. This flight caused a sonic boom. That is all the information available at this time.”
Then WTTG, the local Fox affiliate, learned from the Federal Aviation Administration that a plane had crashed in the mountains of western Virginia.
U.S. Capitol Police said they briefly escalated security levels at the complex due to a plane in restricted airspace.
Finally, the North American Aerospace Defense Command confirmed the two incidents were related.
“NORAD F-16 fighter aircraft responded to an unresponsive Cessna 560 Citation V aircraft over Washington, D.C. and northern Virginia, on June 4, 2023,” a news release stated. “The NORAD aircraft were authorized to travel at supersonic speeds and a supersonic boom may have been heard by residents of the region.”
Chasing the Cessna
Rumpel’s plane left Elizabethton Municipal Airport in Tennessee en route to Long Island MacArthur Airport in New York, where his daughter worked as a real estate broker. According to FlightAware, the pilot made it to New York’s airspace, but then turned back toward Virginia.
Kirby said 99 out of 100 times a call on the radio to a pilot in restricted airspace takes care of the problem. But in this case, there was no response.
Kirby said six teams of F-16s from three different airbases along the East Coast went after the Cessna. Two from Andrews Airforce Base, located in Maryland, reached the plane first.
“They had to turn on the speed to get to the aircraft,” Kirby said, adding that it caused the boom heard around the D.C. area.
They tried radioing the pilot. Then they made themselves visible, Kirby said.
NORAD officials confirmed that the fighter jets tried to get the Cessna pilot’s attention using flares. Officials said flares are used with the highest regard for the safety of the pilot and those on the ground and that they burn out quickly.
At 3:20 p.m., the fighter jets intercepted the plane and determined the pilot was unresponsive. NORAD officials said the fighter jets continued trying to make contact with the pilot until the plane crashed near Montebello, Virginia.
“Throughout that process, there’s a conference call,” Kirby said. “NORAD, (Department of Defense), (The National Security Council), getting real time updates from the pilot. Everyone is in the loop at the same time. The president was briefed at an appropriate time.”
President Joe Biden happened to be on Andrews Air Force base playing golf with family when the planes went supersonic. He returned to the White House shortly after, but went out to dinner that evening with another member of his family.
Aviation experts wondered on social media if the pilot experienced hypoxia, a deprivation of oxygen causing psychological effects and unconsciousness. Many compared it to the crash to the fatal flight of golfer Payne Stewart.
Virginia State Police confirmed that they have located the plane in the mountains.
There were no survivors.