Mike Stefan regularly sees small aircraft soaring over his hay farm in North Collins, so he wasn’t surprised to see a group of planes flying far overhead on Sunday, a clear, bright morning.
But then he saw two of the planes, flying side by side, appear to come together, one on top of the other.
What happened next horrified him.
“And then the bottom one came up into the top one, and his wing hit, maybe, the tail of the other plane,” Stefan said. “The top plane literally disintegrated.”
Three people died in the midair collision and crash, which are under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration. The crash left a debris field over a one-quarter to one-half-mile section of School Street, between Larkin and Eden roads in North Collins, officials said.
One of the victims, Paul A. Rosiek, 60, of Hamburg, was flying a Cessna 120, and the other two victims, Richard J. and Kathleen M. Walker, both 69, of Eden, were flying in a Piper PA-28-140, according to an administrator at Hamburg Airport and aircraft registration records.
Rosiek and the Walkers were among a group of six aircraft flying from the Hamburg Airport to a small airport in Pennsylvania to get a meal on Sunday morning, officials said.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation, with the NTSB investigator likely to issue his preliminary report within two weeks.
But veteran pilots said collisions can happen even in ideal flying conditions, and the crash has rattled the close-knit community of flyers at Hamburg Airport.
“We’re all shaking in our boots now,” Larry Walsh, the airport’s vice president, told The Buffalo News.
The group of six aircraft took off into blue skies at about 9 a.m. Sunday from the airport in Lake View, Walsh said, on their way to St. Marys Municipal Airport in St. Marys, Pa.
Rosiek and Rich Walker were experienced amateur pilots, each with at least 15 years of flying, Walsh said. Both planes, the Cessna and the Piper, are single-engine, fixed-wing planes.
Walsh said he didn’t know the cause of the crash but even on a clear day, with good visibility, one pilot can lose sight of another; for example, if one flies underneath or above the other.
“There are a number of blind spots,” Walsh said.
The first 911 call came in from a cellphone at 9:24 a.m., sheriff’s officials said.
“We have several eyewitnesses who saw the planes approaching before there was contact,” said Scott Joslyn, chief of patrol services.
Stefan was one of them. He said he made the 911 call after watching the two planes collide. He said the planes took more than 20 seconds to fall to the ground.
A third plane remained overhead, circling the crash site for a time, Stefan said, while the fourth plane traveled on, appearing to not have realized what had happened. Stefan never saw the fifth and sixth planes that took off from Hamburg.
Stefan and his 12-year-old son, Ryan, raced over to the crash site.
“My immediate thought was, how are we going to find it? The corn is 10 feet high out here,” Mike Stefan said.
Karen Ricotta, a North Collins town justice who lives on School Street, said she heard a noise at about 9:30 a.m. “And when I looked outside, you could see something next door on a mowed farm field. I couldn’t identify what it was,” Ricotta told The News. “But when I went outside, another man driving by pulled in my yard and told me it was a plane in the field. I called 911, but they already had been called.”
The crash sites for the two aircraft are about 400 yards apart, Joslyn said, one on the south side of School Street and one on the north side.
North Collins Supervisor John M. Tobia said the devastation from the crash could have been worse.
“It missed a house by 100 feet,” Tobia said. One aircraft landed in a field and the other landed between a metal storage building and a wooded area, the supervisor said.
“It’s like a pancake; it’s crushed,” Tobia said. “You can’t tell it’s an aircraft.”
Brian Schmitt lives at School Street and Jennings Road near the two crash sites. “I’m upset. I’m shocked that you could be in the air one minute and dead the next,” said Schmitt, a member of Langford Volunteer Fire Company, which responded to the crash.
Erie County sheriff’s personnel preserved the scene until federal investigators could get to the area. They were assisted by the North Collins and Langford fire companies, Eden police and North Collins rescue.
The Erie County medical examiner also was called. Roads in the immediate area were closed for several hours Sunday.
“Locating any piece of those crafts all tell a tale,” Joslyn said. “It’s going to be real important to have a good search of the area.”
The FAA sent a team from Rochester and the NTSB investigator was driving in Sunday from New York City, said Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the safety board.
The safety board investigator would begin work either Sunday evening, if he arrived while it was still daylight, or first thing Monday morning, Knudson said.
The investigator will collect perishable evidence, including any relevant radar images of the flights, recorded conversations with the pilots, witness interviews, flight plans, data from GPS or other electronic devices in the planes or that the passengers were carrying, Knudson said.
“They want to get that stuff documented,” he said.
A preliminary report should be available within two weeks, but the entire accident investigation likely will take 12 months, Knudson said.
Not much was immediately known about the two pilots.
However, Kathleen Walker was identified as a retired kindergarten teacher at North Collins Elementary School by Schmitt and by Stefan, who is on the North Collins School Board.
— Robert Kirkham (@RobertKirkhamBN) September 25, 2016
Sunday's tragedy isn't the first time that two planes have collided in Western New York skies with deadly consequences. Almost exactly two years ago – on Sept. 27, 2014 – two people died in a crash in Lancaster when one single-engine aircraft clipped another.
“It was a perfect clear day,” Sheriff’s Detective Capt. Greg Savage said at a media briefing Sunday, “just like it was in the Lancaster crash.”
The two small planes were preparing to land at Buffalo-Lancaster Regional Airport, one in front of the other on the same flight path, just like countless planes on other landing paths at airports every day. Coming up from behind, the bigger, faster Cessna descended and struck a smaller experimental aircraft, called a Searey, before spiraling out of control to the ground.
Anthony Mercurio, 78, was flying in a small plane with James Metz, 14. Both were killed. The pilot of the other plane and that plane's passenger, a 9-year-old girl, survived.
The two youngsters and volunteer pilots were taking part in an event at the Buffalo-Lancaster Regional Airport designed to introduce young people to the thrill of flying.