SHARONVILLE, Ohio – Witnesses couldn’t believe what they saw.
Two small planes falling out of the sky in the middle of the afternoon and nosediving into the ground. One crashed onto busy East Kemper Road at the start of Friday rush hour, the other onto the green lawn of a home on a tree-lined residential street.
“I saw the plane out of my front windshield – perpendicular - come straight down in the middle of Kemper Road,” one motorist told WCPO.
A teen said he was playing basketball just 30 feet away when the other plane crashed on 5862 Squire Hill Court, about a mile from the other crash site.
“I heard like a really loud cracking noise. I looked up and it was nose-ending down,” he said.
Three men on the single-prop planes were killed in the accident near Blue Ash Airport 10 years ago on May 11, 2007. Some might call it a miracle that no one on the ground was hit or hurt, and there was no apparent damage to houses at either crash site. But that led a friend of one of the pilots to speculate that he might have been able to heroicly steer his plane away to save others.
“If he had any control over any of this, he would have taken his life to spare everybody else’s – to the last second,” Thad Reinhard of Landen said.
Reinhard was talking about Niels Harpsoe, 64, of West Chester. Harpsoe owned and flew the Beechcraft Bonanza V35B that crashed on East Kemper just west of Reed Hartman Highway.
The other plane, a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, was owned by the Flying Neutrons, a flying club based at Blue Ash Airport. The student pilot was David Woeste Jr., 31, of Anderson Township. The flight instructor was Edward “Ted” Hitchens, 65, of Symmes Township.
According to the NTSB investigation report, the two planes clipped wings while flying in opposite directions. The accident happened at 3:02 p.m., and visibility was rated clear.
Harpsoe’s Beechcraft had taken off 10 minutes earlier and had been doing maneuvers north of the airport. It was heading south and descending to land.
The Cessna had just taken off two minutes earlier. It was heading north and climbing.
Blue Ash Airport, which closed in 2012, was an “uncontrolled airport,” meaning it had no tower or controller. Flight rules state that both pilots “are responsible to see and avoid each other.” According to the NTSB report, both planes were communicating on the small airport radio frequency (technical term is Unicom frequency), which allows pilots nearby to talk and listen to each other.
Neither pilot mentioned any problems, so what happened?
There were no black boxes, but some clues were found in the wreckage. Several days later, investigators were able to examine radar from CVG that showed the course of the planes and when they collided.
Long before that, a local pilot offered a possible explanation to WCPO after landing at Blue Ash moments after the accident. He referred to the differences in the planes – the Cessna with an overhead wingspan, the Beechcraft with a low wing.
“This is strictly speculation,” he said, “but if the low wing (Beechcraft) were above the Cessna, he (Harpsoe) wouldn’t be able to see down, they (Woeste and Hitchens) wouldn’t be able to see up.”
That was spot-on with the NTSB report, issued almost a year later on April 3, 2008. It listed the probable cause of the accident this way:
“The inadequate visual lookout of the pilots in both airplanes and their not maintaining clearance from each other’s airplane during climb.”
READ the NTSB report.
While the wreckage was concentrated at the crash sites, a small amount of debris from the collision fell over two square miles, the Ohio State Highway Patrol said. Residents and troopers retrieved some of it, including a 5-foot section of the Cessna’s wing. That fell on the westbound ramp from Reed Hartman Highway to Interstate 275.
Once NTSB and FAA investigators had examined the crash sites early the next day, crews from Hangar 6 Inc., an airplane repair and salvage company from Hillsboro, Ohio, cleared the wreckage and stored it for closer investigation.
Meanwhile, families and friends mourned the victims.
Harpsoe was “my best friend. He was everybody’s best friend,” Reinhard told WCPO. “He was one of a kind. I think everybody would say that about him.”
Harpsoe, who had more than 1,100 hours of flight time, was a retired engineer who worked at GE Aviation in Evendale and a volunteer for Angel Flight, a group of pilots who provide free flights for needy people who have to travel for medical care. An avid golfer, he had just shot the best round of his life the previous day at Wetherington Country Club. He would have been 65 the next month, and his wife had just had invitations printed for a surprise birthday party.
“He had flown the route he was doing today a thousand times,” Reinhard said in an anguished voice. “I can’t see it being operator error today.”
Reinhard said he didn’t know why Harpsoe took his plane out for only 10 minutes before heading back to the airport.
“I think he hasn’t had the plane up much and I think he was just getting it out, maybe just getting some gas in it. It was a beautiful day to be up in the air today so he was probably just out cruisin’,“ Reinhard said.
Hitchens, who retired from Procter & Gamble the year before, had more than 4,200 hours of flight time – 2,100 logged as a flight instructor over 30 years. He also was a musician and popular neighbor and community organizer.
“He was such a nice guy, always so friendly and helpful anytime we needed anything,” next-door neighbor Swadesh K. Singh told the Enquirer.
“We always kind of called him the mayor of the block,” neighbor Claudia Biggers said because Hitchens organized block parties and rallied residents to fight the widening of Montgomery Road.
Woeste, father of four young children, was described as a devout Christian who loved fixing up his home, according to the Enquirer. He and his wife started a website, www.bestnest.com, which sells backyard wildlife products. He obtained his student pilot certificate in 2004 and had nearly 120 hours of total flight time – 60 as pilot in command.
In a statement, Woeste’s family said: “Those that knew him saw him as a man of integrity, strong character, faith and principle. He pursued every endeavor with a passion – from building a business to coaching soccer to supporting Pregnancy Care of Cincinnati, to sharing his knowledge with the students in the entrepreneurial program at Miami University.
“The family is grieving – but because of his faith in Jesus Christ we have the hope and promise that he is present with the Lord.”
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