OCEAN CITY — The crew on an Ocean City sportfishing boat was the first on the scene last Saturday when a small private aircraft crashed into the ocean after flying across the Eastern Shore from the Washington D.C. area with an unconscious pilot and an F-16 fighter jet escort.
Shortly after 3 p.m. last Saturday, a private single-engine Cirrus SR22 crashed into the Atlantic just over 50 miles due east of Wachapreague, Va. in the Washington Canyon just south of Ocean City.
The private plane, piloted by Ronald Hutchinson, 67, was on a flight plan from Waukesha, Wis. to Manassas, Va. last Saturday when it flew into restricted air space over Washington at about 13,000 feet.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the single-engine plane had not been responding to radio calls since about 1 p.m. Under the protocol for an unresponsive plane flying in restricted airspace, two U.S. NORAD F-16 aircraft were sent up and came along the Cirrus to investigate and observed the pilot to be unconscious in the cockpit. Hutchinson was the only occupant of the plane.
The two F-16 jets escorted the Cirrus on autopilot along its course across the Eastern Shore until it ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean in the Washington Canyon about 50 miles or so off the coast of Wachapreague, Va. around 3:17 p.m. The Coast Guard in Portsmouth launched an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and an HC-130 Hercules airplane from Air Station Elizabeth City in North Carolina and the Coast Guard cutter Beluga from Virginia Beach to respond. The Coast Guard searched the area until sundown on Saturday and resumed the search on Sunday morning before calling it off.
According to Bob Builder on the “Tied Up,” based out of Sunset Marina in Ocean City, the search was in vain because the Cirrus went down so quickly in about 85 fathoms, or over 500 feet, in the Washington Canyon. Builder and the “Tied Up” crew were fishing in the area and the incident unfolded just about a quarter of a mile from their location.
“We were fishing in the area and we saw the fighter jet on the horizon flying slow and at a low altitude,” said Builder this week. “As the jet got closer and closer, we could see there were two of them and they appeared to be escorting a small private plane. The jets and the smaller plane kept getting lower and lower toward the ocean and we were about a quarter of a mile away. As the fighter jets got closer to us, they fired off signal flares in a synchronized pattern, maybe about five of them.”
Builder said the entire incident unfolded in a matter of a couple of minutes from when they first spotted the F-16 on the horizon until the private plane crashed into the sea.
“As the small plane got closer to the surface, the jets peeled away and went up to a higher altitude,” he said. “The Cirrus just kind of glided into the ocean with a huge explosion of water. It crashed into the west wall of the Washington Canyon in about 85 fathoms.”
Builder said the “Tied Up” cruised over to the crash site to offer any assistance if needed or if possible, but the small plane went down quickly and there was not much anyone could do.
“We rode over to it in time to see the fuselage go under the surface and disappear in the deep water,” he said. “The entire plane went down in less than 10 minutes. There was minimal debris and it completely disappeared. The jets circled over the crash area for about five minutes and then peeled off and flew away.”
Builder said the “Tied Up” crew did not know of any of the events leading up to the crash they witnessed from just a quarter mile away or so.
“It was a very somber moment,” he said. “We weren’t sure at the time of there was one person on board or two or three or five.”
Builder said the “Tied Up” crew never felt in danger despite their close proximity to the crash. It is rather remarkable the plane traveled across the entire Eastern Shore on auto pilot with an unconscious pilot before crashing into the sea when it ran out of fuel.
“You could tell the jets were extremely well-equipped and in control of the situation,” he said. “We obviously paid close attention, but at no time did we think we were in danger. I think the jets could have controlled where and when it went down.”