NEWBERG, Ore. -- Witnesses told investigators that the twin-engine plane involved in a mid-air collision over Newberg Tuesday appeared to be doing training maneuvers and hit the single-engine plane during a descent.
Witnesses said that the twin-engine plane was doing a series of ascents and descents and it clipped the single-engine plane, according to Capt. Ken Summers with the Yamhill County Sheriff's Office. Witnesses also told KGW that the back end of the smaller plane was sheared off, sending it plummeting to the ground.
Flight instructor Travis Thompson, 31, of Beaverton and Henrik Murer Kalberg, 23, of Hillsboro walked away after crash-landing their plane in a field near Newberg Tuesday afternoon, authorities said.
"It is unclear at this time who was in control of the aircraft at the time of the collision" Yamhill County Sheriff Jack Crabtree said.
Steven Watson, 58, of Beaverton, was in the other, smaller plane. He died after his Bonanza single-engine aircraft broke apart and crashed to the ground, authorities said.
"We're dealing with a tragic situation at this point and we're thankful no one on the ground was injured," National Transportation Safety Board lead investigator Josh Cawthra said.
Watson was a retired Oregon State Police commander.
“When Steve smiled, he lit up a room,” said Lt. Gregg Hastings with Oregon State Police.
Investigators said the mid-air collision happened in an area not under formal air traffic control and the pilots were flying by visual flight rules.
The PDX Air Traffic Control Tower picked up one of the first radio transmissions that alerted of the crash. "Portland approach, Portland approach, there has been a mid-air collision," the caller said. "Oh God, it's northeast of Aurora. Just north of the river, a collision. One airplane is still flying. One airplane is smoke on the ground."
"The plane in Yamhill County is absolutely, totally destroyed. It’s just a burned patch in the woods,” Summers said. He said Watson's plane hit the ground just off Wilsonville Road.
Initially, investigators thought more people may have been on board Watson's plane but NTSB said Wednesday that there was only one confirmed fatality.
Witnesses reported an explosion and a huge column of thick, black smoke just after 4 p.m., Tuesday on a tree farm located at 35150 Wilsonville Road. Others reported seeing a plane spiraling to the ground and debris flying into Champoeg State Park.
"I heard this terrible noise in the sky and I looked up and the whole back end of the one-engine airplane had been sheared off,” said witness Diane Sitton.
The National Transportation Safety Board scoured the debris field, which was several miles wide. A large piece of the fuselage fell just south of the Willamette River, a seat from one of the planes fell into the park campground and debris also hit a pickup truck owned by a couple from Sherwood.
NTSB said it could take months for them to complete their investigation which will include interviews with the two survivors, analyzing the debris, studying radar images, and tracking the pilots' actions through the black boxes from their planes.
Watson had taken off from a small airport in McMinnville. The twin-engine plane had taken off from the Hillsboro Airport. Authorities have not said where either of the pilots were en route to.
Investigators said when pilots are flying by visual flight rules and doing training maneuvers, it is the responsibility of the pilot performing the maneuvers to make sure the area is clear.
Champoeg State Park was originally closed, but has been re-opened. About 50 people were camping near where the debris landed but no one was hurt. They were all evacuated after the crash. Wilsonville Road was reopened to all traffic Wednesday evening.
"In the great expansive sky it's hard to imagine two planes would try to occupy the same spot and come together like that," said Summers. "Fortunately it's extremely rare, but it happened today."
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