The pilot of the private plane that crash Sunday in Virginia had a 40-year career that began with crop dusting and grew into a strong reputation for safety in his profession.
Jeff Hefner had been a member of the board of directors for the pilots union of Southwest Airlines, an airline he had retired from as a captain.
“Jeff was a defender of his fellow pilots’ safety, careers, and family,” the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association said in a statement, according to The Washington Post. “We offer our deepest condolences to his wife, his family, and his friends. The aviation community has lost a true champion.”
Dan Newlin, an attorney in Florida who told the Post that he had flown with Hefner over 100 times, went even further than that.
He called Hefner “Mr. Safety.”
“When it came to flying, he was always super serious, super cautious and very focused,” Newlin told the Post. “He knew aviation inside and out. It was his passion.”
He said that he’d hired Hefner for his firm after seeing Hefner’s 25,000 flight-hours over his 25 years with Southwest, and his certification as an aircraft mechanic.
The Federal Aviation Administration had recently granted Hefner its highest-level medical certification as well, the Post reported.
The investigation into the crash continues, hampered by the difficult terrain of the crash site and the destruction of the plane upon impact.
“Experts say publicly available data indicates the plane might have lost pressurization, leaving the pilot and passengers unconscious and the jet on autopilot until it ran out of fuel,” the Post reported.
The pilot and three passengers on board may have died of hypoxia prior to the crash, according to current theories that seem to fit the facts known about the case.
CNN reported Tuesday that just 15 minutes after the plane took off from Elizabethton, Tennessee, en route to Long Island MacArthur Airport in New York, the flight control officials lost contact with the Cessna Citation. The loss of communications occurred when the plane was at 31,000 feet.
The jet continued up to 34,000 feet and then flew past its destination of MacArthur Airport. It turned and started heading back south toward Washington, D.C. The Cessna was believed to have been on autopilot.
In a separate article, the Post, citing unnamed sources, said that an F-16 pilot told investigators that Hefner was visibly slumped over his seat in the cockpit.
The F-16 pilot encountered the Cessna about 12 minutes before it crashed in the mountains near Waynesboro, Virginia.
“Whatever happened, happened at altitude, which is a critical location to lose pressurization. The higher up in altitude you are, the less time you have to get on oxygen,” former Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jeff Guzzetti told the Post.
Pilots have “30 to 60 seconds to don oxygen masks if the plane is depressurized or risk falling unconscious” due to hypoxia, according to CNN.
“The onset of symptoms is so subtle that it’s hard for a person to tell when it is happening to them. They might begin breathing at an increased rate, feel dizzy, lose coordination and experience impaired judgment,” the news outlet reported. “When a brain goes without oxygen for too long, the part of the brain that helps with respiration can stop working and prevent a person from breathing.”
Investigators are looking for t”black boxes” containing flight data, though the Cessna private plane was not required to have them.
Guzzetti told the Post that the NTSB will be seeking to determine what might have caused the cabin to depressurize on the Cessna on Sunday and why Hefner was apparently not able to put on his oxygen mask before going unconscious.
The plane was registered to Encore Motors of Melbourne, Florida. In addition to Hefner, company owner John Rumpel said those who died on the airplane included his daughter Adina Azarian, his 2-year-old granddaughter, Aria, and the child’s nanny.
Rumpel is a prominent contributor to Republican candidates and causes, including former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Mitt Romney, and numerous state Republican parties.
“We are devastated by the news of this tragedy which took the lives of Jeff and all three passengers,” Hefner’s family said in a statement issued through an attorney, according to the Post. “Our hearts are full of sorrow for John and Barbara Rumpel for the loss of their daughter, granddaughter and nanny.”
This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.
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