NTSB opens probe into glider crash that killed Smithsonian official
MINDEN – Investigators probed a mile-wide swath of splintered wreckage on Wednesday, seeking clues to what caused a glider to break apart and spiral to earth at 200 mph, killing the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum and his friend, a world-renowned pilot.
Donald Engen, 75, head of the museum, and longtime friend William Ivans, 79, of La Jolla, Calif., died Tuesday when Ivans’ motorized glider lost a wing at about 5,000 feet above the floor of the Carson Valley, a mecca for glider pilots.
The valley, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, is one of the premiere areas for sailplanes because of thermal updrafts generated by the Sierra.
Bob Francis, vice-chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, led a federal team brought in from Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles to investigate the crash – the second fatal glider accident in a month here.
The NTSB probe could take several months to complete. Francis said investigators will study the tiny pieces of the shattered glider, size of the debris field, weather conditions and other factors, as well as talk with eyewitnesses.
Francis added ”it was not an abnormal day” for weather at the time of the crash, although thunderstorms and high winds developed later.
He also said Ivans’ Nimbus 4DM glider was radio-equipped, but there apparently was no transmission from the plane as it went down.
The two victims also had parachutes. Francis declined to comment when asked whether they might have been unable to get out of the plane as it rocketed to the ground at an estimated 180-200 mph.
Keston Denny, 11, who lives near the crash site, was one of the witnesses.
”I saw the airplane take kind of not a violent turn, but it wasn’t an easy turn. And then there was a loud noise and the wing snapped off and it fluttered down to the ground,” Denny said.
”Then the airplane took a really sharp spiral, like a doughnut kind of a turn and then went right over this hill that’s right by our house,” he said. ”I knew that he had crashed and I went in and told my mom and she called 911.”
Glider pilot Kenny Brieglieb, flying above Ivans’ aircraft, also saw the crash. Larry Sanderson, president of the Soaring Society of America, said Brieglieb told him that the plane was ”nose down with the wings flexing greatly” before breaking up seconds later.
Sanderson, a friend of both victims, said the area is popular with glider pilots because of the conditions that allow for long, high-altitude flights, but it can also be difficult.
He said one potential problem is that a wing could stall when a glider makes tight turns in a thermal – air rising rapidly from a sun-heated surface. Ivans was circling upward in a thermal when his plane broke up, witnesses said.
”The same conditions that produce world-class gliding can challenge you as well,” Sanderson said, adding that ”it had to be a very unusual set of circumstances that stressed the aircraft.”
Engen had been director of the museum in Washington, D.C. since 1996. He also was administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration from 1984 to 1987, and served for two years on the National Transportation Safety Board.
A much-decorated Navy pilot, Engen retired as a vice admiral in 1978. He also served as general manager of Piper Aircraft Corp.
He took over as head of the museum after his predecessor, Martin Harwit, resigned in May 1995. Harwit left after some historians and veterans’ groups complained that an exhibit on the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was too sympathetic to the Japanese.
Air and Space is one of 16 museums and galleries operated by the Smithsonian Institution, and is the most visited museum in the world.
Both Engen and Ivans were top officers in the Soaring Society of America. Ivans was considered a soaring pioneer who had won awards for high-altitude flights. He was the former president of the International Gliding Commission.
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