An airplane and a helicopter collided in midair near a Maryland airport before crashing into trees Thursday, killing three men in the helicopter but sparing two in the plane who deployed a parachute to slow the aircraft's descent before it hit the trees.
The Cirrus SR22 plane was heading to the Frederick Municipal Airport and a Robinson R44 helicopter was engaged in a training exercise when the collision occurred, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement. The statement did not say what kind of training exercise the helicopter was conducting or identify its owner. It said the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the collision.
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State police identified the men who died as: Christopher D. Parsons, 29, of Westminster, Maryland; William Jenkins, 47, of Morrison, Colorado; and Breandan J. MacFawn, 35, of Cumberland, Maryland. Investigators do not know who was piloting the helicopter, Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said in a statement.
The helicopter was leased to Advanced Helicopter Concepts, a flight school at the airport, said Neal Lanning, the company's owner. He said company officials would hold a news conference Friday morning.
A helicopter of the same make and model belonging to the same company crashed on Interstate 70 about 15 miles west of Frederick in 2009, killing all four people aboard. The NTSB ruled that crash an accident due to poor nighttime visibility on a fog-shrouded mountain.
The 55-year-old pilot of the plane, Scott V. Graeves, of Brookeville, and his passenger, 75-year-old Gilbert L. Porter, of Sandy Spring, were treated at a hospital in Hagerstown and released Thursday evening, Shipley said.
The plane went down in a line of trees east of downtown Frederick, while the helicopter crashed a tenth of a mile south of the plane between two storage units, Shipley said.
A large red-and-white parachute deployed from the plane following the 3:40 p.m. collision and was still attached to it when emergency responders arrived on the scene, said Capt. Kevin Fox of Frederick County Fire and Rescue.
The plane appeared to be largely intact, but the helicopter was demolished.
The parachute attached to the airplane's frame is designed to lower an airplane safely when the pilot is unable, said Brian Rayner, a senior air safety investigator for the NTSB.
Shipley said the plane survivors were being questioned by police and NTSB investigators. Rayner said the NTSB would interview the air traffic controllers at the Frederick tower, who were probably in control of both aircraft. He said the helicopter appeared to be departing the city-owned, civilian airport.
A transcript of the control tower conversation provided by LiveATC.net indicates the tower was working with two airplanes and three helicopters shortly before the crash.
"I have three helicopters below you in the traffic pattern," the controller tells an inbound airplane.
"I have two of 'em in sight," the pilot responds.
The controller then gives the airplane clearance to land. In the next second, the audio is overtaken by someone screaming, "Oh, God! Oh, God!"
Then someone tells the controller, "Frederick Tower 14 ... airplane down and helicopter down."
"Yes, yes. I just saw it," the controller says frantically. "911 is on the way."
Jesse Ault Jr. of Brunswick and his wife, Pamela, saw the airplane "spiraling out of control" before the crash, and that the pilot was hurt and shaken up.
"The pilot had blood up above his nose and on his face," Ault said. "You could tell he was visibly shaken."
The weather was cloudy and breezy, but that didn't seem to be a factor in the collision, Rayner said.
According to the FlightAware aviation tracking website, the plane took off from Cleveland Regional Jetport in Cleveland, Tennessee.
A tail number visible in aerial footage from WJZ-TV in Baltimore is registered to Graeves Auto & Appliance in Olney, Maryland. A woman who answered the phone at the store declined to comment. According to the store's website, Scott Graeves owns the business. No one immediately responded to a telephone message left at his home.
The collision prompted road closures at rush hour around the airport near Interstate 70.
Associated Press writers Kasey Jones and Juliet Linderman in Baltimore and Jessica Gresko and Ben Nuckols in Washington contributed to this report.