Federal investigators on Saturday were trying to figure out why a small plane plunged from the sky into a Sauk Rapids house, killing the pilot and his passenger Friday night.
Authorities have not released the names of the two victims, whose bodies were recovered about midnight after firefighters doused a fire that raged through the plane wreckage and split-level home, said Sauk Rapids Police Chief Perry Beise.
Witness Courtney Breth said she saw the small plane flying just behind a jet, amid the bigger plane’s wake turbulence, right before the plane nose-dived.
Federal investigators will look into the relative positions of the small plane and jet.
“If it looks like there is another aircraft playing a role in this accident, it will certainly be looked at, absolutely,” said Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, D.C.
The single-engine plane was registered to Scott A. Olson, 60, of St. Cloud, according to aviation records. His LinkedIn resume online says Olson was a pilot for Sun Country Airlines with worldwide experience.
No information was available on his passenger. A woman who answered the phone at the Olson home declined to comment Saturday. Condolences were being written to his family on Facebook.
Beise said the small plane was kept at a hangar at St. Cloud Regional Airport.
Olson’s plane flew out of there at 7:55 p.m. Friday with the pilot notifying an air traffic controller that he was headed out for aerial photography, Knudson said.
An NTSB investigator arrived at the damaged house owned by Jeff Hille on Saturday afternoon.
Hille, a teacher at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School, said Friday night that his brother-in-law, Kole Heckendorf, was in an upstairs bedroom when he heard an explosion, saw flames and smoke, and jumped out a second-story window.
Heckendorf, 27, was not injured. He and his wife lived with her brother, Hille, in the 700 block of Garden Place, which is just west of Hwy. 10 on the city’s north side.
Sauk Rapids is about 70 miles from Minneapolis, just north of St. Cloud.
Records show that an Airbus 319 owned by Allegiant Air was headed from Phoenix to St. Cloud airport about the time of the crash, which was reported to the Benton County Sheriff’s Office at 8:26 p.m.
Sauk Rapids is in the flight path to St. Cloud Regional Airport, Beise said.
“Obviously we have been made aware of the incident, and certainly our thoughts are with the families of the pilot and the other person in the aircraft,” said Jessica Wheeler, a spokeswoman for Allegiant.
She said the airline was cooperating with the NTSB investigation and could not comment further.
FlightAware, a flight-tracking website, shows Allegiant Flight 108 left Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport and was 20 minutes late as it began its descent about six miles from the St. Cloud airport.
It was scheduled to land at 8:08 p.m. but landed at 8:29 p.m. — three minutes after 911 calls began coming in about the smaller plane’s crash.
Knudson said the single-engine Van’s RV-6 crashed 39 minutes after it took off. It was a two-seater with a bubble-top canopy.
Breth, who was sitting outside with her friend Friday night, said the jetliner was flying low when it went over their neighborhood. They spotted the smaller white plane in the jet’s wake, then watched as it suddenly turned and nose-dived, she said.
Knudson said investigators will look into all aspects, including the speed and altitude of the smaller plane, as well as any other plane that may have been nearby.
“We look at the pilot, the airplane and the operating environment,” Knudson said.
That environment includes weather and air-traffic conditions, how the plane was being handled by air traffic controllers, what communications were going on, what radar showed, and what witnesses saw, he said.
It also includes any wake turbulence the smaller plane may have flown into, he said.
At issue is whether the pilots knew about each other and their flight paths, said Jeff Lewis, a retired air controller from Oregon who analyzes accident data and pushes for FAA reforms.
Documenting the speed and altitude of the jet will enable aviation regulators to determine whether the Allegiant jet began a descent too far from the airport, and if it was going too fast and low, he said.
Controllers are vigilant to never let a plane get behind or beneath another plane because wake turbulence can cause a smaller plane to go out of control and flip, Lewis said.
Knudson said a preliminary report will lay out the facts and circumstances within 10 days. The FAA will also investigate.
The cause of the crash and analysis of facts typically take about a year to complete, he said.
Joy Powell • 612-673-7750