At least three people died Saturday afternoon after two planes, one of them pulling a glider, collided in north Boulder, scattering debris over 115 acres of open space.
At 1:30 p.m., a Piper Pawnee towing a glider was struck by a Cirrus SR20 plane near U.S. 36 and Broadway, said Jennifer Rodi, the National Transportation Safety Board's lead investigator for the crash.
The Schweizer 2-32 glider had freed its rope at the time of the collision, and the glider pilot passed through the ball of flames before landing safely at Boulder Municipal Airport, Rodi said.
Witnesses reported hearing a loud explosion at the time of the crash and seeing a fireball in the sky. A parachute drifted slowly to the ground with what appeared to many observers to be debris engulfed in flames entangled in the ropes.
What was attached to the parachute was actually the body of the Cirrus plane, Rodi said. Cirrus planes are equipped with parachutes that can deploy on impact, slowing the descent of the aircraft.
The Pawnee was destroyed in midair; the Cirrus was destroyed by its impact on the ground, Rodi said.
Three people are confirmed dead.
A look at the two planes and glider
Length: 26 feet
Wingspan: 38 feet, 4 inches
Characteristics: single-engine, low-wing aircraft with fixed landing gear.
Known for its incorporation of an airframe parachute that can float the plane and its passengers to the ground in the event of a midair collision.
Length: 24 feet, 9 inches
Wingspan: 36 feet, 2 inches
Characteristics: single-engine, low-wing aircraft with fixed landing gear.
Developed as an agricultural plane, it remains widely used in agricultural spraying and as a tow or tug plane used for pulling gliders or banners.
Design emphasis was on pilot safety with the fuselage structure designed to collapse progressively during a low-speed crash, typically experienced during crop spraying operations.
Schweizer 2-32 glider
Area: 180 square feet
Wingspan: 57 feet
Characteristics: mid-wing, high-performance glider, all-metal, with an aluminum fuselage and cantilever wings
Set many world records for two-place gliders in the 1960s and 1970s when it was first introduced. Popular as a tourist glider.
Joan Pallone, of Broomfield, said her brother-in-law, Bob Matthews, and his brother, Mark Matthews, were on the Cirrus plane and are among the dead, according to The News Tribune in Duluth, Minn., the region where the Cirrus is manufactured.
“My sister had just battled cancer,” Pallone said. “It's so terrible. Both (men) died right near their homes. It's absolutely horrifying.”
A Cirrus SR20 is registered to Robert Matthews, of Boulder, the News Tribune reported. A woman who answered the phone at Matthews' home said it was not a good time to talk and hung up.
Boulder County Coronor Tom Faure said his office has not yet made positive identifications on any of the victims, and the identities of the dead might not be confirmed until early next week.
Craig Perkins, a commercial pilot who was shooting skeet at the American Legion when the collision happened, said he saw at least one person jump from the burning plane while it was still at least 500 feet above the ground. He estimated the planes were at around 1,500 feet when the collision occurred.
Rodi said investigators don't know the altitude of the planes, the direction of travel or the angle of impact. Investigators have received numerous reports that the Cirrus severed the tow line connecting the Piper and the glider, but Rodi said those have not been confirmed. Investigators also don't know whether the parachute deployed automatically or was deployed by someone on the plane.
The glider's pilot has provided a written statement to NTSB investigators. Rodi said advocacy teams were with the pilot and his family; authorities plan to interview him in the next two days.
While the tail number of the Piper has been recovered, the tail number of the Cirrus had not been as of Saturday evening. Without the tail number, investigators don't know what airport the plane flew out of or how many people were aboard the four-seater. Rodi said no one had reported an overdue plane or missing family members as of late Saturday afternoon.
Investigators will continue searching the debris field Sunday morning for as many as two other bodies based on the number of seats on the planes involved.
The wreckage was spread out over several ridges and depressions northeast of the intersection of U.S. 36 and Broadway, west of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks' Foothills trailhead. Investigators could be seen walking along the ridgelines and grouped around pieces of debris.
The area is mostly open prairie, with a few houses along Broadway Street and a dirt road running parallel to U.S. 36.
Rodi said investigators don't know which planes the known fatalities came from because the bodies were not found with the wreckage.
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Teresa Fehrenbacher, co-owner of Gateway Fun Park in north Boulder, said one of the planes crashed a quarter-mile away from the park.
“One of our customers was on the mini-golf course and heard a loud boom,” she said. “There was smoke coming from the north side of our property.”
Fehrenbacher immediately called 911 and authorities showed up within about two minutes, she said.
“When we ran out there, the plane was totally engulfed,” she said.
Laurie Carter was driving west on Niwot Road when she saw a fiery piece of debris fall in the Boulder Valley Ranch open space.
“Then we saw what looked like parachuters going down with smoke coming up around them,” Carter said.
Another witness, Shano Kelley, was working in his north Boulder jewelry studio when he saw two pieces of debris fall in the open space. He also saw a parachute open.
“I took about a minute and a half for it to reach the ground,” he said. “You just feel for the people.”
An official with Mile High Gliding at the Boulder Municipal Airport confirmed one of the company's planes was involved in the crash. He declined further comment.
The area above the crash sites is a popular flyway with small planes flying from Boulder Municipal Airport, and a half dozen planes passed overhead in the hours after the accident.
Rodi said it will take several days for investigators to identify and document all the wreckage. With snow expected Sunday morning, investigators will use tarps to protect the site.
The investigation will take eight to 10 months. A final determination of probable cause will come from the NTSB's governing board in Washington, D.C., two months after the investigation is finished.
Greg Feith, who was an NTSB investigator for more than 20 years, said after investigators examine the wreckage and crash scene, they will look at possible other factors that might have played a role in the collision. They'll also talk with witnesses and other pilots who were in the air at the time and were sharing the same radio frequency, Feith said.
“The key is trying to track down other pilots on that frequency to see what kind of communication was taking place with each aircraft involved,” Feith said. “And the weather always plays a factor, too.”
While wind and precipitation didn't play a role, Feith said, there were some low clouds at the time.
“It was murky,” he said. “So the question is, ‘Did they see each other? And if they did, did they have time to avoid each other?'”
Rodi said investigators are not aware at this time of other pilots who heard any radio traffic between the two planes.
Earl Allen, a pilot who works at the Boulder Municipal Airport, said he didn't hear any radio traffic for at least five minutes before the collision.
Visibility was about five miles, and pilots did not have to rely on instruments to fly, Rodi said.
Feith said midair collisions are “rare events.”
“And to have a witness as close as the glider pilot was, is even more rare,” he said. “He's going to be a key to this investigation.”
The glider pilot should be able to tell authorities how and why the airplanes collided, Feith said.
“And, of course, ground witnesses are always important as well,” he said.
Camera Staff Writer Ryan Huff and intern Noah Wanebo contributed to this report.
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