MORRIS TOWNSHIP, N.J. – A small plane heading for Georgia spiraled out of control and crashed Tuesday morning on a major New York-area highway, hitting a wooded median and scattering wreckage across the road. All five people aboard, including two investment bankers, were killed, but no one on the ground was injured.
The pilot had discussed icy conditions with controllers just before the plane went down, but investigators were unsure what role, if any, icing played in the crash.
The New York investment banking firm Greenhill & Co. said two of its managing directors, Jeffrey Buckalew, 45, and Rakesh Chawla, 36, as well as Buckalew's wife and two children, were on the plane, which crashed on Interstate 287. Buckalew was the registered owner of the single-engine plane and had a pilot's license.
Wreckage was scattered over at least a half-mile, with a section found lodged in a tree of a home about a quarter-mile away, near a highway entrance ramp. The crash closed both sides of the busy highway for hours, though several lanes were open again in time for the evening rush hour.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators said the search for wreckage was suspended after dark Tuesday and would be resumed after the Wednesday morning commute to minimize traffic problems.
NTSB officials said they don't believe the plane had a black box, which would have recorded flight data, but they said investigators were searching for other memory devices, including GPS, collision avoidance systems or any device with a recordable chip that might yield more information.
Rockaway Township resident Chris Covello said he saw the plane spin out of control from the car dealership where he works in Morristown, near the site of the crash.
"It was like the plane was doing tricks or something, twirling and flipping," he said. "It started going straight down. I thought any second they were going to pull up. But then the wing came off and they went straight down."
The high-performance Socata TBM-700 turboprop had departed from nearby Teterboro Airport in New Jersey and crashed about 14 minutes into its flight. It was headed for DeKalb Peachtree Airport near Atlanta.
The pilot had a seven-second call with a controller about icing shortly before the crash, NTSB investigator Robert Gretz said.
Gretz said he did not know whether the pilot was reporting icing had occurred or was questioning the location of possible icing conditions. He said he was unaware of any icing on the ground that would have required deicing.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the pilot had requested clearance to a higher altitude shortly before the plane dropped off radar. The NTSB said the plane had climbed to 17,500 feet.
Ice can form on airplanes when temperatures are near freezing and there is visible moisture, such as clouds or rain. The ice adds weight to an aircraft, and rough accumulations known as rime interrupt the flow of air over wings.
In extreme cases, a plane can lose so much lift that it falls out of the sky.
Icing played a role in crashes in 2009 involving a Colgan Air flight outside Buffalo and an Air France flight off the coast of Brazil. In both cases the pilots sent their airplanes into uncontrolled spins while trying to deal with accumulations of ice. The Colgan plane crashed into a house.
Most versions of the TBM-700 have deicing systems. But recordings available online show that even airliners with powerful deicing equipment were having trouble clearing the ice Tuesday. The pilot of a commuter jetliner headed to nearby LaGuardia Airport in New York asked a controller for an immediate climb into drier conditions.
The pilot of the TBM-700 was told to maintain an altitude of 10,000 feet as he headed southwest over northern New Jersey. A controller warned him about the conditions in the clouds above.
"There are reports of moderate rime. ... If it gets worse let me know and when center takes your handoff I'll climb you and maybe get you higher," the controller said.
The pilot responded: "We'll let you know what happens when we get in there. And, yeah, if we could go straight through it, that's no problem for us."
Teenager David Williamson was doing maintenance at a golf course in Morristown when he spotted a plane in trouble, with smoke coming off both sides of the wings.
"It was really scary," he said.
When the plane crashed, he said, it sent up a "huge plume of thick black smoke."
The plane just missed a pickup truck on the southbound lanes before crashing into the median, Gretz said.
Charred wreckage was left across the median and highway, a heavily used route that wraps around the northern and western edges of the New York City area. A huge ball of charred metal sat in the middle of the northbound lanes.
The occupants of the plane were headed to Georgia for personal and business reasons, Gretz said.
Greenhill & Co. said Buckalew's wife, Corinne, and the couple's two children, Jackson and Meriwether, were traveling with him.
"The firm is in deep mourning over the tragic and untimely death of two of its esteemed colleagues and members of Jeff's family," the company said in a written statement.
A resident at Chawla's Manhattan apartment building remembered him as being constantly on the go, leaving early and getting home late. Arthur Yellin said that Chawla and his family were "wonderful people" and that the banker doted on his three children.
Authorities said a dog aboard the plane also was killed.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Shawn Marsh and Beth DeFalco in Trenton, David Porter in Newark, Christopher Hawley and Cristian Salazar in New York, and Leonard Pallats in Atlanta.