They belonged to what came to be known as the Sunday breakfast club – six pilots flying their planes out of Hamburg Airport.
At first, pilot Bill Drew of Eden wasn’t aware of the deadly midair collision involving two of the other planes Sunday morning. He had been the fifth of six pilots to take off for St. Marys, Pa., a little more than 100 miles away. Drew’s wife, Geri, sat beside him.
“The six of us use the same radio frequency, and you always keep the plane ahead of you in sight” and share each other’s altitude level with one another, Drew said.
But the usual communication among the pilots was missing as he guided his low-wing Grumman Cheetah through the sky about 9:30 a.m.
Still, that didn’t alarm him initially, because he said the planes climb altitude at different rates.
An Eden couple – Richard and Kathleen Walker, both 69 – took off second in their Piper Cherokee, just a bit behind their friend, Paul Rosiek, 60, of Hamburg, who flew first in his Cessna 120.
“I never heard from Walker or Rosiek on the radio at all, but the other three planes did,” Drew told The Buffalo News in an interview in his home about nine hours after the crash.
“By the time I got up, and heard no reply from them ... I suspect it had already happened,” Drew said.
The third plane, Drew later learned, had received a phone message from a friend that there had been a small plane accident.
When the pilot of the third plane turned back to Hamburg, so did Drew, who was over the Bradford, Pa., airport at the time.
“The Hamburg airport got a hold of us in the air as we headed back,” Drew said. “An instructor radioed me, and said, ‘Bill, the planes went down.’ The sheriff wanted to know how many souls were on board,” Drew recalled. “I said to him, ‘How bad?’ He said, ‘Real bad.’ ”
The planes piloted by Walker and Rosiek collided in the bright blue skies above School Street in North Collins, killing all aboard.
North Collins farmer Mike Stefan called 911 after seeing the aircraft collide.
“I think he lifted up to see where his friend was,” Stefan said of the lower plane. “They were so high up in the air that they looked like they were crawling. It literally took 20 to 30 seconds for them to hit the ground.”
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and Erie County Sheriff’s Office worked Monday to piece together what went wrong just before 9:30 a.m. Sunday when Stefan saw the planes collide in midair a short distance from his farm at School Street and Jennings Road.
Authorities found wreckage at three sites.
About 80 percent of Rosiek’s Cessna landed on the north side of School Street in a small swath of open land between a home at 2860 School and a metal storage building.
Wreckage from Walker’s Piper aircraft was found about 400 yards away on the south side of School Street in a hay field. The tail of the Cessna and a 4-foot section of the Piper’s wingtip were found about 200 feet apart in a cornfield on nearby Larkin Road, said Robert J. Gretz, senior air safety investigator with the NTSB.
Gretz briefed reporters Monday a short distance from the bulk of Rosiek’s plane wreckage. All of the wreckage was expected to be removed by late Monday.
The NTSB investigation is expected to take six to 12 months, with a preliminary report expected to be filed on the agency’s website in about 10 days. The initial report will address what happened and the location, but not detail the cause.
Gretz also indicated that autopsies and toxicology reports are expected to be done on the three victims.
“We will probably try to match the witness statements with the impact marks on the wreckages,” Gretz said. “We will still be looking at the winds (at the time) and the radar data.”
No distress calls were heard from the pilots, and the other pilots flying in the group did not receive any communication, Gretz said.
Radar contact with the two planes was lost at 9:23 a.m. Sunday, one minute before the farmer’s 911 call.
“I don’t believe there was a pre-arranged plan to fly in formation,” Gretz said of the six planes that flew out of Hamburg Airport.
The Cessna was a high-wing plane, making it difficult to see above, he said. The Piper is a low-wing plane, making it difficult to see below.
However, witnesses say the Piper was climbing up into the Cessna, so based on the witness statements, “the blind spots would not be consistent with that collision angle,” Gretz said.
None of the other pilots whom sheriff’s investigators interviewed witnessed the crash, said Erie County Sheriff’s Detective Capt. Greg Savage.
The collision occurred about eight to nine miles from where the planes took off from the Hamburg Airport.
Multi-colored tarps were lifted from the mangled pieces of wreckage Monday by sheriff’s deputies for the NTSB to inspect.
For Drew, the crash killed a best friend of some 40 years. Richard Walker lived just 1,000 feet away in the same neighborhood off Eckhardt Road. Walker was the reason Drew took up flying. The two were also close sailing and hunting buddies.
Richard Walker was retired from a local publishing company. Kathleen Walker was a retired North Collins kindergarten teacher.
Drew also lost his close flying buddy, Rosiek, who ran a plumbing company and enjoyed target shooting with Drew at the Boston Valley Conservation Club.
The three – Drew, Walker and Rosiek – all learned to fly together at Hamburg Airport about 18 years ago. Drew and Walker were fixtures at the airport off Heltz Road.
“He and I were ‘the twins’ at the Hamburg Airport,” said Drew, 75. “We were always together.”
Their passion for flying was born about 20 years ago when one day, Walker came to visit Drew, who was 55 at the time and recovering from cancer.
“He came over with some books on flying and said we should try it,” Drew recalled.
Drew had not been in a plane since he was 15, but decided to give it a go.
“We took flying lessons together, and before we had our license, we’d go to breakfast and then go flying” on Sunday mornings as we trained at the Hamburg Airport, he said.
The two got their pilot licenses in 1998. Rosiek happened to be taking flying lessons at the same time.
“Once we got our licenses, we both bought planes and we’d get a group together and meet at the airport. If it was flying weather, we’d all go out to breakfast,” Drew said. Sometimes, their wives came, and other times, just a few of them came.
‘Emotions in check’
With Drew knowing the grave circumstances, he piloted his plane back to Hamburg, knowing he’d likely lost three friends.
How did he stay calm?
“The first thing they teach you is, ‘Fly the plane,’ ” Drew said.
“You have to keep your emotions in check. Sullenberger did it,” Drew said, recalling how Chesley Sullenberger III, captain of US Airways Flight 1549, successfully landed his disabled aircraft on the Hudson River off Manhattan in January 2009.
After landing in Hamburg, the Drews learned all three had died in the crash. They went to visit Rosiek’s wife and then drove back to the airport, where pilots and friends gathered to grieve and reminisce.
What went wrong in the North Collins skies remains a mystery. Drew noted how it’s difficult to see “out of a plane, up or down” and not “behind you at all.”
He also does not suspect there were any stunts going on in the air at the time of the crash.
“They do not do stunts. Rosiek was adamant about that,” Drew said.
Drew, retired from construction work, vowed to keep flying despite Sunday’s tragedy.
In fact, he expects some of the pilots will continue their breakfast tradition next weekend.
“I think there will be breakfast club next Sunday. They would want it,” he said of the Walkers and Rosiek.