The biggest mystery in the Lancaster mid-air collision of two small airplanes that killed a pilot and his young passenger two years ago is why the pilot didn’t see the other plane on a crystal-clear morning – a question also being raised by Sunday’s triple fatality in the skies above North Collins.
After investigating the Lancaster crash, the National Transportation Safety Board has cited pilot error as the probable cause.
The Cessna flown by 78-year-old Anthony M. Mercurio on Sept. 27, 2014, came from behind and struck a smaller, experimental aircraft known as a Searey, before it fell vertically in a spiral and was destroyed on impact with the ground.
Mercurio and 14-year-old James Metz, a freshman at Lancaster High School, were killed in the crash about two miles southeast of the Buffalo-Lancaster Regional Airport.
The Mercurio Cessna collided with the Searey piloted by Lackawanna dentist Kevin A. D’Angelo of Orchard Park, who managed to safely crash-land his plane in a field near Town Line Road, saving his own life and that of his passenger, a 9-year-old girl.
Both pilots were flying that day as part of the Young Eagles youth flight program held by the Experimental Aircraft Association.
In its final report on the Lancaster collision, the NTSB essentially said it was Mercurio’s fault. In a report dated July 25, it cited “the pilot’s failure to maintain an adequate visual lookout for known traffic in the fly-in event traffic pattern, which resulted in a mid-air collision.”
It noted that the Searey would have been a stationary “small dot” in Mercurio’s windscreen for several minutes until the final seconds before impact, but noted that the craft may have been difficult to distinguish against the background of terrain.
Mercurio’s Cessna would not have been visible to D’Angelo, the Searey pilot, because it approached from an area that was obstructed by the Searey’s structure, the NTSB said in its report.
But his 9-year-old passenger, who has not been publicly identified, told NTSB investigators the day after the crash that she saw the Cessna approaching but didn’t have time to warn D’Angelo.
“According to the passenger, she looked out the right window and ‘ ... saw a white airplane coming at us from above and I knew it was going to hit us. I tried to warn the pilot but there wasn’t enough time and the microphone was too far away.’”
D’Angelo told the NTSB he was nearing the point when he was to begin the turn north toward the airport, when he felt a sudden “bang” and heard a “snapping” sound.
“He said he wasn’t sure if the airplane had struck something, or if something in the airplane had broken,” according to the NTSB report.
The Erie County Medical Examiner performed an autopsy on Mercurio, determining multiple blunt-force injuries were the cause of death. No evidence of any medical condition was found that could have contributed to the accident.
“The accident was a tragic loss of my beloved husband Tony,” said Mercurio’s widow, Mary Ann Mercurio. “Our four children and five grandchildren loved him very much. Our family also mourns the loss of James Metz and our hearts go out to his family in prayer. To us, it was just a very sad and tragic accident. But Tony and James will live in our hearts until we are all together again in heaven with God.”
She declined to talk about the NTSB report.
Steven Metz, father of James Metz, was careful not to pass judgment after reviewing the report several times with his family. “I think it is a variable,” Metz said of the probable cause listed.
“I think there’s more to it than the probable cause. I think that is one variable that is involved. But I think there’s more to it than just that,” Metz said.
Earlier this week, as they marked the two-year anniversary of the crash, the Metz family, close friends and neighbors gathered at basketball courts and a roller hockey rink at a park in Lancaster that was renovated in James Metz’s memory.
“We had 70 people there. It started at 6 and we stayed to about 8 p.m.,” Metz said of the gathering at the just-opened nearly $250,000 project, of which the James Metz Memorial Foundation raised $163,000.
The two-plane crash Sunday above North Collins brought back bad memories for Metz’s family – and brought the NTSB investigators back to the Buffalo area.
Three people died in the mid-air collision. 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.
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.
When he heard about that crash, Metz said his wife’s first thought was it might have been a Young Eagle flight program again, though it turned out not to be.
“When it happened, my first thought was the poor families. They think everyone is going out having fun and then they don’t come back home,” Metz said.
James Cavanaugh, a seasoned pilot and aerial photographer who knew Mercurio, said “these types of accidents are so rare, and to have two in a region in two years defies all odds.”
“Accidents happen,” he said. “Little planes are about as heavy as a mid-sized car. They’re built to be very strong and very reliable, but as light as possible. The structure that is in there is hopefully to protect you at takeoff. But if you’re falling at 1,000 feet, there isn’t much anybody can do.”