By PETE DeLEA and JOSHUA BROWN
WEYERS CAVE – As Roger Rossen drove his box truck on Weyers Cave Road toward Grottoes shortly before 2:30 p.m. Friday, he looked up in the sky to see a helicopter and small plane flying almost parallel to each other.
They appeared, Rossen said, to be trying to land at Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport just east of Weyers Cave.
“It looked like they were racing,” the 57-year-old Stuarts Draft resident said. “Man, they were really close.”
As the aircraft continued flying, he said, the plane, a Cessna 172 with two people on board, began to descend. He said the plane collided in midair with the helicopter, an AirCare 5 medical transport based at SVRA.
He said the wing of the plane was sawed off.
“It was like a knife cutting a piece of paper in half,” he said. “It was a terrible thing to see. To think you were 20 seconds away from landing safely, and that happens. You just never know.”
The plane’s two occupants died at the scene.
The Cessna 172 is registered to Elkton resident Michael W. Price, who was not on board the plane. The FAA lists Price as a pilot examiner, a person who tests applicants for a pilot’s license orally and in flight.
Price declined to comment Friday evening.
On Saturday, police identified the victims as Jason Allen Long, 32, of Edinburg, and Jacob Houston Kiser, 19, of Grottoes. Sources say Long was a flight instructor and Kiser a student.
Authorities said it’s unclear who was piloting the plane, which was a dual-controlled aircraft, and officials say they might not ever know who was at the controls.
The helicopter was landing at SVRA after returning from flying a patient to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville.
Although Rossen’s account suggests the plane also was attempting to land, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Jim Peters said the Cessna was departing the airport when the collision occurred.
A representative with the National Transportation and Safety Board also said the agency had talked to several witnesses who gave similar accounts but had some conflicting information about the positions of the aircraft.
The two aircraft collided about a half-mile north of the airport, Peters said. The main portion of the plane landed in a field, while a wing land on a frozen pond nearby.
The helicopter, a Eurocopter EC-135 registered to PHI Air Medical Group, owner of AirCare 5, landed safely.
First Sgt. Scott Van Lear of the Virginia State Police said all three people on the helicopter walked away from collision, apparently uninjured. Van Lear said Paul Weve was piloting the helicopter, and Joeseph Root and Carolyn Booke, both nurses, also were on board.
AirCare 5 helicopter has been based at SVRA for more than five years. The helicopter service typically flies patients from the central Shenandoah Valley in need of emergency service to the U.Va.
Weather didn’t appear to be a factor as conditions were clear with light winds in the area around the time of the accident.
An NTSB team arrived at the crash scene Friday night and plans to be in the area investigating for several days.
Brian Rayner, senior air safety investigator with the NTSB, said SVRA is an uncontrolled airport, meaning there is no control tower to organize incoming and outgoing flights.
Van Lear said investigators will use a sophisticated laser system to assist in the investigation, which may take up to a year to complete.
State police, airport security and the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene initially, according to the sheriff’s office. Members of the Weyers Cave Fire Department, SVRA fire personnel and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries also responded.
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