Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday the skydiving plane that crashed at Dillingham Airfield, killing all 11 aboard — 10 men and one woman — apparently flipped and burned shortly after takeoff.
Friday’s accident was the deadliest civilian aircraft accident in the U.S. since a 2011 Reno Air Show crash that killed the pilot and 10 spectators, said Jennifer Homendy, an NTSB board member. The aircraft, a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air BE 65-A90, crashed shortly after takeoff at around 7 p.m. Friday.
NTSB investigators arrived Sunday on Oahu and have started looking into the circumstances that led to the tragedy.
Homendy held a briefing near the crash site Sunday and discussed a number of details the federal agency will look into regarding the crash, ranging from weather and runway conditions to the pilot’s logbook and training records.
Though the federal agency has just started the fact-finding portion of the investigation, Homendy commented on a few of the possibilities that could have led to the crash, including the plane being filled beyond its capacity.
“The aircraft itself is outfitted for 13 people,” she said. “Weight and balance has a factor in the safety of these operations, and that’s a calculation that needs to be made before a plane is operated, and that is something we’ll be looking at.”
Homendy said the plane rolled on Runway 8 for 5,500 feet, or a mile and a quarter, before taking off, turning left, then flipping over and crashing. It came to rest against the fence surrounding the airfield near a row of ironwood trees.
Friends and family members of the victims have placed flowers and other items at a makeshift memorial along the fence near the crash site. The burned remains of the plane were still on the ground Sunday.
NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said that the typical liftoff point at Dillingham is about a third of the way down a runway, but the Beechcraft King Air went roughly halfway down the runway before getting airborne.
An 11-member NTSB team has been assembled due to the significance of the event, Weiss said. On Sunday the team arrived at the scene at daybreak. The investigators have asked that any witnesses with video or information should email it to email@example.com.
Though the aircraft, flown by Oahu Parachute Center, was involved in another accident in 2016, Homendy dismissed that as a reason for keeping the plane grounded, although she said the quality of the repairs after that accident will be investigated.
“Like other modes of transportation, you would conduct repairs and make sure that is inspected, and so we will be looking at the quality of those repairs and whether it was inspected and whether it was airworthy,” she said.
Oahu Parachute Center officials were not available for comment Sunday.
An initial manifest noted that nine people were killed, and when asked why the number had jumped to 11 from nine, Homendy said that it was normal in such accidents.
“That happens when accidents occur, that the number changes over time, which is often why we don’t confirm fatalities and we leave that up to the local officials,” she said. “It’s just the nature of any accident, that the number changes over time.”
Homendy said she isn’t sure whether the two names were purposely left off that initial manifest, but that too will be under investigation.
Skydivers say people sometime jump onto a plane at the last minute if it has space for more.
The Medical Examiner’s Office said Sunday it has completed the autopsy for all 11 victims of the accident, identifying 10 men and one woman aboard the aircraft. The names have not been released.
The names of some have been confirmed by family and friends, including Larry Lemaster, Casey Williamson and Mike Martin, all of whom appeared to be employed by the Oahu Parachute Center.
Lemaster’s wife, Anna Elkins, named several others in a Facebook post. One of those is Daniel Herndon, who said on his Facebook page that he was one of Oahu Parachute Center’s skydiving instructors. A Donor Box campaign asking for funeral fund donations was posted on his profile Sunday.
Herndon and two men, referred to only by their first names, James and Jerome, were mentioned in Elkins’ post and can be found on the company’s staff page.
U.S. Rep. Ed Case said that following the accident, there needs to be a discussion about Federal Aviation Administration regulations of recreational aircraft in Hawaii.
“What this reflects is long-standing attitudes in terms of open skies, the idea that people can just fly wherever they want whenever they want, and I just think those days have to end,” he said. “We are not only clearly seeing major safety concerns here in Hawaii, but we have neighborhoods and communities throughout Hawaii that daily are being overrun by these operations, and I don’t think that’s what any of us signed up for.”
Gov. David Ige said in a new release Sunday, “The people of Hawaii join me in extending our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the 11 lives lost on Friday evening. I want to assure you that the state will do whatever it can to assist with the federal investigation. We will miss the energy, vitality and spirit of those lost in this terrible crash.”
Airplane mechanic Scott Blackley of North Shore Aviation said Sunday he assisted with maintenance and minor repairs on the Beechcraft involved in the crash until a year ago.
“We tried to keep the plane in pretty good shape,” he said, adding it had no need of major repairs.
But another mechanic took over, and “I just had to wash my hands of it,” he said.
Skydiver Gabriel Monreal, who paid respects at the crash site Sunday, said eight of the skydivers who died in the crash were his friends, mentors and teachers, who had thousands of jumps of experience.
Monreal said his loss is nothing compared with “the biggest heartbreak” for the families left behind, including Lemaster’s 4-year-old son and wife.
Monreal said on sunset jumps, if employees didn’t have any tandem jumps, they would often jump together with solo customers doing from three- to six-way jumps.
If there is room on the plane, there is a 20-minute time frame “to wheels-up time if fun jumpers want to get on,” Monreal said.
This might explain the discrepancies in the number of fatalities reported by officials Friday and Saturday, he said.
A fellow pilot and skydiver, who only gave his name as Eric, brought his children to the site to pay respects to the pilot, who he knew only as Jerome. “Super-nice guy,” he said, his eyes tearing.
Madison O’Connell, 11, of Helemano said she drew a picture of 11 people “as angels up in the clouds” and placed it among the flowers.
Napua Hakkei, 64, arrived from Kaneohe with her husband. They brought two bouquets of flowers.
“We came to pay our respects,” said Hakkei. “It’s just so tragic. Makes my heart hurt knowing they were doing something fun, and family was waiting for them.”