Air Traffic Control Lost Contact With Pilot Minutes Into Doomed Flight That Crashed In Virginia Mountains

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Air traffic controllers lost contact with the pilot of the doomed F-16-intercepted Cessna aircraft within minutes of its flight out of Tennessee, aviation officials say.

The plane, which crashed on a mountainside in rural Virginia, took off from Elizabethton Municipal Airport in Tennessee just after 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon, carrying four people. Air traffic controllers lost contact with the pilot minutes later as the plane ascended en route to Long Island, New York, the Associated Press (AP) reported Tuesday, citing the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The last communication attempt by air traffic control was made at approximately 1:28 p.m. as the plane reached 31,000 feet, according to preliminary NTSB information cited by the outlet. When the pilot failed to respond in that final attempt, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported the situation to the Domestic Events Network, a group of government, military and other law enforcement agencies, the outlet reported.

Despite not having contact with air traffic controllers, the plane continued on its scheduled route to Long Island before making a 180-degree turn and approaching restricted airspace in Washington, D.C., where it was intercepted by six F-16s, AP reported, citing the Pentagon. The military pilots repeatedly attempted to get a response from the unresponsive Cessna by rocking their wings and firing flares, ABC News reported. Despite the efforts, the pilot remained unresponsive and the plane ultimately crashed near Montebello, Virginia, just after 3:30 p.m., according to the outlet. (RELATED: Twin-Engine Plane Crashes In Arkansas, Leaving All 5 On Board Dead: Officials)

“The most likely scenario right now is a pressurization failure or a mis-setting of the pressurization system,” aviation psychologist Alan Diehl told AP. Diehl previously worked for the FAA, the NTSB and the U.S. Air Force.

Diehl also helped design the original model of the Cessna Citation, the same plane involved the incident, during the 1960s.

If pressurization of the cabin played a role in the incident, Diehl estimated the pilot likely had minutes or even less than a minute to react as the oxygen left his brain, depending on his age and health, AP reported.

In addition to the pilot, the flight was carrying 49-year-old Adina Azarian, her 2-year-old daughter Aria and their nanny, according to the outlet. There were no survivors in the crash.