An NTSB official said Monday there was no early sign of mechanical problems or a medical emergency as the cause of the fiery crash of a vintage single-engine plane in Westhampton Beach that killed two people and injured a third.
The pilot of the plane, which went down at about 11:40 a.m. Sunday, had been cleared to do practice takeoffs and landings. He did not call for help before the aircraft slammed into a wooded area adjacent to Francis S. Gabreski Airport and burst into flames, said Daniel Boggs, an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
“There’s no indication of any mechanical deficiencies at this time, but we are just now starting the investigation and looking at that,” said Boggs, who spoke at a news briefing Monday at the airport.
Boggs said investigators want to interview the survivor, identified by state police Monday as the pilot, Richard Rosenthal, 61, of Huntington Station, but he remains hospitalized and cannot speak.
Killed in the crash were flight instructor Arieh Narkunski, 64, of Brooklyn and passenger Robert A. Wilkie, 65, of Hempstead, police said. Family members of Wilkie, a tax attorney with a practice in Hempstead, declined to comment.
Narkunski’s ex-wife, Annita Narkunski, 61, of Staten Island, said in a phone interview that Narkunski had studied aviation since he was a teenager growing up in Israel and had served as a jet mechanic in the Israeli Army.
“My husband was a very careful flyer, very smart, experienced,” Annita Narkunski said. “Flying was his passion.”
He came to the United States when he was about 25, she said, and had worked as a taxi driver in the city as well as a flight instructor for many years.
Narkunski was an instructor at Airborn Flight Services Inc., a Farmingdale-based pilot school, according to its Facebook page.
“Arieh was one of the people who leave a large hole in our hearts when they are gone,” a post on the social media page said. “He was a great friend and a passionate instructor. His wit made everybody smile. His high moral standards made us all better people. We will greatly miss him!”
Narkunski, who had two adult children, would have turned 65 on March 9, his ex-wife said.
“He was just an amazing person — full of life — nowhere near ready to go,” she said.
The aircraft, identified by the Federal Aviation Administration as a Ryan Navion F, had taken off from Republic Airport in East Farmingdale before arriving at Gabreski. At 11:40 a.m. the Korean War-era plane plunged into a thick tangle of trees and brush just beyond Gabreski’s runway 33A, officials said.
The plane had clearance to perform touch-and-go exercises, which are practice landings and takeoffs, officials said, and had executed a landing but crashed as it ascended.
Touch-and-go landings are more risky than landing and coming to a stop because they require several manual adjustments to the cockpit controls while the plane is still moving, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association warns members on its website.
“All that potential flailing of hands in the cockpit can lead to undesirable results,” according to the website.
Army National Guardsmen training above Gabreski on Sunday morning in a black hawk helicopter spotted Rosenthal trying to escape the burning aircraft. The helicopter landed nearby and guardsmen helped Rosenthal from the wreckage. The guardsmen, armed only with handheld fire extinguishers, were overcome by flames and heat and could not save Narkunski and Wilkie.
Rosenthal, an attorney with a practice in Kew Gardens specializing in animal law, remained in critical condition Monday at Stony Brook University Hospital, recovering from chest trauma and smoke inhalation, said James A. Vosswinkel, the hospital’s trauma surgery chief.
“However, we’re hopeful he’s going to make a full recovery,” Vosswinkel said.
Investigators spent much of Monday examining the heavily wooded crash scene and plan to haul the plane to an aircraft recovery center Tuesday to dissect its engine and frame, Boggs said. Investigators also plan to study the inspection records of the plane, which was built in 1951.
“We have just received the aircraft log books . . . and we will be poring through all of those,” Boggs said. “Aircraft maintenance is very specific and very detailed and all general aircraft, small aircraft, go through an annual inspection by a certified mechanic and the aircraft are inspected from nose to tail. So aircraft, even though they’re made in the ’50s and the ’60s and the ’70s, they’re still in very good condition.”
Boggs described the crash site as “a very compact area. It’s pretty obvious because he was just practicing in the pattern, there wasn’t a lot of air speed so there’s not a lot of forward movement in the impact zone.”
Boggs said he expects to file a preliminary report in 10 to 20 days, and a final report in about 18 months. All three men aboard the plane were licensed pilots, he said.
With William Murphy and Rachelle Blidner