The United States scrambled F-16 fighter jets in a supersonic chase of a light aircraft that violated airspace in the Washington D.C. area with an unresponsive pilot and later crashed into mountainous terrain in southwest Virginia, officials said.
The jet fighters prompted a sonic boom over the U.S. capital, causing consternation among people in Washington area, in an attempt to catch up with the errant Cessna Citation, officials said.
A Cessna aircraft crashed into mountainous terrain in southwest Virginia around the time the sonic boom was heard in the capital, the Federal Aviation Administration said. A Cessna Citation can carry seven to 12 passengers.
A U.S. official said the jet fighters did not cause the crash.
A separate source familiar with the matter said the Cessna was believed to be on autopilot and did not respond to authorities.
The Cessna was registered to Encore Motors of Melbourne, Florida, according to the flight-tracking website Flight Aware.
Encore owner John Rumpel told the Washington Post his daughter, a grandchild and her nanny were on board.
“We know nothing about the crash,” the Post quoted Rumpel as saying. “We are talking to the FAA now,” he added before ending the call.
The U.S. military attempted to establish contact with the pilot, who was unresponsive, until the Cessna subsequently crashed near the George Washington National Forest in Virginia, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said in a statement.
“The NORAD aircraft were authorized to travel at supersonic speeds and a sonic boom may have been heard by residents of the region,” the statement said, adding that NORAD aircraft also used flares in an attempt to draw attention from the pilot.
The Cessna took off from Elizabethton Municipal Airport in Elizabethton, Tennessee, and was bound for Long Island MacArthur Airport in New York, about 50 miles (80 km) east of Manhattan, the FAA said in a statement, adding that it and the National Transportation Safety Board would investigate.
The crash occurred around 3:30 p.m. EDT (1930 GMT), the FAA said.
According to the flight-tracking website Flight Aware, the plane appeared to reach the New York area and made nearly a 180-degree turn, with the flight ending in Virginia.
Air National Guard F-16s were deployed from Joint Base Andrews, ABC News reported, citing an unnamed U.S. official. At least one military pilot saw that the Cessna pilot had passed out, ABC reported.
While rare, incidents involving unresponsive pilots are not unprecedented. Golfer Payne Stewart died in 1999 along with four others after the aircraft he was in streaked across thousands of miles with the pilot and passengers unresponsive. The plane eventually crashed in South Dakota with no survivors.
In the case of Stewart’s flight, the plane lost pressure, causing the occupants to lose consciousness because of oxygen deprivation.
Similarly, a small U.S. private plane with an unresponsive pilot crashed off the east coast of Jamaica in 2014 after veering far off its course toward southwest Florida and triggering a U.S. security alert that prompted a fighter jet escort.
On Sunday, the sonic boom caused consternation among many people in the Washington area who took to Twitter to report hearing a loud noise that shook the ground and walls. Several residents said they heard the noise as far away as northern Virginia and Maryland.