Loss of oxygen in cabin may have led to Virginia plane crash, experts say
Police officers walk behind the tail of the crashed Cypriot Helios plane on a hillside in Grammatiko, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Athens, Greece, Aug. 22, 2005. Some aviation experts are citing pilot hypoxia as a leading theory for why an unresponsive business plane flew over the nation’s capital Sunday, June 4, 2023, and caused the military to scramble fighter jets. Greek investigators said pilots on a Cypriot airliner did not realize an automatic pressurization system was set to “manual” when a loss of cabin pressure and oxygen led to hypoxia and the plane’s crash in Greece in 2005, killing all 121 people on board. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File)

RICHMOND, Virginia (AP) — A loss of oxygen is a leading theory for why an unresponsive business jet flew off course and over the nation’s capital Sunday before it crashed in rural Virginia. But federal investigators are just beginning to look for answers, and experts cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

The Cessna Citation took off from Elizabethton, Tennessee, headed for Long Island’s MacArthur Airport. Once over Long Island, it inexplicably turned around and headed south, flying straight over Washington, DC before crashing in Virginia, killing the pilot and three passengers.

“By far the most likely suspect is some sort of a pressurization issue,” said William Waldock, a professor of safety science who teaches aircraft accident investigation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.

“It went up to 34,000 feet and basically stayed there — all the way up, all the way back,” Waldock said. “The turn (away from New York and back south) is a little perplexing. But it kind of depends on what kind of autopilot system the aircraft had.”

The Sunday crash wasn’t the first time a flight ended up far from its destination under mysterious circumstances.

Waldock, Brickhouse’s colleague in Arizona, added that the pilot would have had about 45 seconds to a minute to put on an oxygen mask.

“Whatever hit him, hit him fast enough to where the pilot didn’t really have too much time to get on the emergency oxygen system,” Waldock said. “That type of aircraft usually has a an emergency mask for the pilot, called a pressure-demand mask, that actually force feeds oxygen into your lungs. At 34,000 feet, you really can’t move air volume in and out.”

The fighter jet pilots who caught up with the business jet said its pilot appeared to be slumped over and unresponsive, according to two US officials briefed on the matter. The officials were not authorised to discuss details of the military operation and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Flight tracking sites showed the plane suffered a rapid spiraling descent, dropping at one point at a rate of more than 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) per minute before crashing in the St. Mary’s Wilderness.

Waldock said the plane likely ran out of fuel, given its rapid descent and the lack of a very large fire at the crash site.

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