A pilot who witnessed Sunday's fatal airplane crash in Erie from the ground said he believes the aircraft went down after heading the wrong way toward runway traffic and aborting its landing.
Planes were lined up to take off heading southeast on the Erie Municipal Airport runway when Erie real estate lawyer Oliver Frascona's single-engine aircraft came in for a landing heading northwest, said Tracy Ross.
Ross, 48, said he saw the Piper PA-46 start to land, then pull up, before crashing to the ground northwest of the airport.
All five passengers in the plane died. The Weld County Coroner's Office has identified those aboard as Frascona, 67, his girlfriend, Tori Rains-Wedan, 41, and her three children. The children were Mason Wedan, 15, and twin brothers Austin and Hunter Wedan, 11. A dog also died in the crash.
On Tuesday, a Denver-based National Transportation Safety Board investigator was finishing up the "on-scene phase" of the crash investigation, said Peter Knudson, NTSB spokesman.
Knudson said the investigator will soon write a preliminary report, which could be made public later this week or early next week.
'Didn't make any sense'
Ross had been out flying Sunday morning with fellow pilot Joe Lechtanski, who dropped Ross off at the Erie airport before taking off again for Centennial.
As Ross watched Lechtanski's plane take off heading southeast on the runway, he saw another plane coming in for a landing heading northwest.
The two planes, heading toward each other, appeared to come within 300 yards of each other, Ross said.
"When he was taking off, I look up and I see this plane," Ross said. "'What the heck? Why is that plane coming in on this runway?' It didn't make any sense."
The Erie airport has one runway that pilots call by two different names, depending on their direction of travel. Pilots typically take off and land heading into the wind, he said.
Runway 33 is used when pilots are traveling northwest, typically when winds are coming from the north. Runway 15 is used when pilots are traveling southeast, with winds from the south.
On Sunday, the winds were blowing from the southeast around the time of the crash, which occurred at about 11:50 a.m. Several airplanes were taking off or landing heading southeast.
Ross said he wondered why Frascona would come in for a landing heading northwest when the winds were coming from the south. This meant Frascona's plane was being pushed by a tailwind, which can make landing more difficult, Ross said.
Ross noticed that Frascona's plane wasn't stable and wasn't moving very fast.
"He wasn't smooth coming in," Ross said. "That's why I watched him."
Ross said it looked like Frascona was executing an aborted landing maneuver. He said he saw the landing gear go back up and heard the power to the engine increase.
When the plane veered to the left and flew overhead, Ross said he could tell something was wrong.
"He wasn't gaining altitude, and he had his nose up," said Ross, who flies a two-passenger Tecnam Bravo plane. "He definitely had full power. He just couldn't get any airspeed. He was pretty much in trouble at that point."
Ross said he started running toward the plane and watched the bottom of the engine skid into the west bank of Coal Creek. The plane cartwheeled over top of itself, Ross said.
Contrary to what one witness saw and heard, Ross said there didn't appear to be any problems with the plane's engine. He said he heard the engine roaring at "full throttle."
What's more likely, he said, is that the plane went into what's called an aerodynamic stall because it didn't have enough airspeed. This occurs when there is not enough air flowing over the wings to create the lift needed to hold up the plane, Ross said.
'Could this have happened to me?'
Lechtanski, who was taking off from the Erie airport at the time of the crash, said he never saw Frascona's plane with his own eyes.
After a few hours of flying, Lechtanski, 62, went to the Erie airport to drop off Ross. He checked the weather and noticed that the wind had changed from earlier in the day and was blowing from the southeast.
Lechtanski, who's been flying for more than 40 years, said he landed heading south on the runway, into the wind.
Before taking off again, Lechtanski said he checked the radio frequency for the Erie airport, which does not have a control tower.
Pilots use the frequency to coordinate take-offs and landings with each other, "like coming to a four-way stop sign," Lechtanski said.
Though he heard two other pilots on the radio frequency, he did not hear Frascona, Lechtanski said.
As he started to climb, Lechtanski said, he saw an object appear, a half-mile dead ahead, on the screen of his plane's traffic collision avoidance system.
He diverted his plane to the right, avoiding a collision with Frascona's plane, he said.
"Whether I was there at that point in time or not, he would've seen the other aircraft on the ground (heading southeast)," Lechtanski said. "The fact that we came very close is a non-issue. He may not have even seen me."
The two were flying similar PA-46 planes.
"At no time did (he) identify himself in the pattern or in final approach," he said. "He would've heard everybody else announcing that they were in the pattern or departing (heading south), in the opposite direction."
Lechtanski said can only speculate at this point but believes it's possible that Frascona may have been tuned to the wrong frequency and didn't hear the other pilots on the Erie channel. He said it's also possible that Frascona wasn't aware that the wind had changed direction from earlier in the day.
Lechtanski said he and many other pilots are sad for the loss of a member of the flying community. They're also talking through what could have gone wrong and wondering if the crash could have been avoided.
"We're always speculating, looking for, 'Could this have happened to me?' " he said.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Sarah Kuta at 303-473-1106 or email@example.com.