This story was reported and written by Mark Morales, Craig Schneider, Robert Brodsky, Joan Gralla, Janelle Griffith, Patricia Kitchen, Martin Evans and Ellen Yan.
The pilot of a small vintage plane who performed in the Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach was killed Wednesday in a fiery crash in a residential area in Melville, officials said.
The victim, the sole person aboard, was flying a World War II-era GEICO Skytypers plane and had taken off from Republic Airport in East Farmingdale, a spokeswoman for the flying group said. No one on the ground was injured, police said.
The Skytypers, which are based at Republic, identified the pilot as Ken Johansen, 52, of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, a professional airline pilot and a former U.S. Navy aviator. He was flying a North American T-6 Texan along with five other planes from the GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team and was headed to Maryland.
The plane crashed shortly before 2 p.m. along Northcote Drive, hitting the street a few hundred feet from a row of homes, Melville First Assistant Fire Chief David Kaplan said.
Multiple witnesses described seeing the plane drop from the sky after flying in formation with other aircraft. Video shows the plane plummeting in a direct vertical drop.
“The three planes were flying very close together in formation. Then the fourth plane was on his own. He did a full vertical loop on his own and when he came out of the loop, all of a sudden, the plane went up, then went straight down, like a rocket,” said Rob Olsen, 52, from Levittown, who saw the crash from outside a Huntington Hills rehab center.
“Literally straight down. There was no weird circling or waving back and forth. . . . It happened very, very fast,” Olsen said.
A Wednesday statement from a Skytypers spokeswoman, Brenda Little, said, “There was a fatal accident today with one of the Skytypers aircraft as it was departing Republic Airport on Long Island, NY. Teammate and executive officer, Ken Johansen, was killed in the crash that resulted.”
On a recording from air traffic control at Republic, a controller is heard saying, “I believe we just saw somebody go down.” The recording is posted on the website LiveATC.net, which includes audio uploaded by commercial pilots.
On the recording, several other Skytypers pilots still in the air at the time of the crash tell the controller that there are plumes of thick black smoke and fire in a wooded area.
The Melville Fire Department, along with a crash truck from Republic Airport, responded and extinguished the blaze at the crash site in about 10 minutes. The first responders, Kaplan said, found the pilot dead.
The plane shattered and its tail sat in the street alongside several downed tree limbs. Some parts of the aircraft were in the woods on the other side of the road.
“It’s extremely lucky that nothing was hit,” Kaplan said. “Houses were approximately 200 feet away.”
Suffolk police Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said no one on the ground was injured.
“It was fortunate that the plane crashed in the wooded area and not the residential part,” Cameron said. The area is flanked by a nursery and homes on one side and a grove of trees on the other.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the plane that crashed had flown out of Republic but referred any other questions to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Records show the plane was a vintage fixed-wing, single-engine craft, manufactured in 1942. It was commonly used by pilots in the Navy and Air Force as a training aircraft.
Terry Williams, a spokesman for the NTSB, said the agency was in “the early stages of our investigation” into the crash.
NTSB investigators, he said, will examine the aircraft and its engine, speak with witnesses and look at the plane’s maintenance records.
Little said the Skytypers is working with various agencies on the probe, saying, “A careful and thorough investigation is already underway.”
Johansen, who is survived by his wife and two children, was the son of a Skytypers instructor Bob Johansen. The younger Johansen first flew with the team when he was 8 years old, according to the group.
The Skytypers’ website said Johansen is a captain for a major airline. It said he had flown with the Royal Netherlands Navy and the U.S. Navy, and went on to be a commercial pilot with TWA. The site said he had worked out of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, as a Navy Reserve Instruction Pilot flying DC9’s around the world, the Skytypers said.
He was currently a United Airlines pilot, said United spokeswoman Maddie King. “We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of First Officer Ken Johansen. The thoughts of the entire United family are with his loved ones,” King said in a statement.
The Skytypers’ Memorial Day performance on Saturday, the group said, was a brand-new one, including more rolls and bursts at center stage. The flying group is led by Larry Arken, a commercial pilot. He could not be reached Wednesday.
Accountant Lou Scaglione was outside during his lunch break when he saw a formation of what he described as five World War II planes. The next time he looked there were four. Then, he saw smoke over the trees.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Scaglione, 53, of Deer Park. “These planes are part of Long Island.”
The crash happened roughly 2 miles from Newsday, where Kenneth McDougall works as a security officer.
After he learned about the crash from a co-worker, the former New York City correction investigator headed to the crash site. At the scene, McDougall directed a bystander to call the authorities, then took a fire extinguisher from his company car and joined two neighbors who were trying to put out the fire with garden hoses. Firefighters arrived a few minutes later.
McDougall said he didn’t see the pilot.
Fred Meuser, 88, a resident of the Huntington Hills Center for Health & Rehabilitation in Melville, said he and several others were on the second-floor veranda when he saw three planes in formation heading north. A fourth plane headed toward the others when, “all of a sudden it fell like a rock,” straight down.
Meuser, who said he was a member of the Commack Fire Department for 59 years, including serving as its chief, said he was “waiting for it to pull out,” but then saw the smoke.
CORRECTION: Rob Olsen of Levittown saw the crash. An air traffic control recording from Republic Airport is posted on the website LiveATC.net. Maddie King is a spokeswoman for United Airlines. References to Olsen’s name, the website and King’s title were incorrect in an earlier version of this story.
About the Skytypers
- Based in East Farmingdale, the group is led by Larry Arken, a commercial pilot. He took over from his father, Mort Arken, a retired military pilot.
- Six pilots perform rolls, bursts and passes at air shows at less than 200 feet, their wings as close as 3 feet.
- They fly a fully modernized, silver-bodied, red-nosed World War II training aircraft called “The Texan.”
- The pilots come from the military, law enforcement and airlines; two retired Blue Angels have begun the 2-year training.
- They now focus on stunts more than skytyping.
- The Memorial Day weekend show was brand new, with crosses, breakups and meetups.
- In 2007, GEICO Skytyper pilot Jan Wildbergh died after crashing during a rehearsal for an air show in Virginia Beach, Va.
About pilot Ken Johansen
Married with two children.
Executive officer with the Skytypers, according to a group spokeswoman.
Father is Skytyping Instructor Pilot Bob Johansen.
Graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1989 and became a Naval aviator.
Also worked as a professional commercial pilot.
SOURCE: GEICO Skytypers