The Wisconsin dairy community is mourning the loss of two men, as well as a pilot, in a February 22, 2018, Carroll County plane crash that took the lives of all three men on board. The men were bound for Green Bay, Wisconsin, from Indianapolis, Indiana, when the tragedy occurred in a field outside of the small town of Rossville, Indiana.
Investigations into the crash are already underway through the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but will take some time. A preliminary report and pilot communication before the plane went down, however, suggest that mechanical failure may have caused the crash.
The number of commercial airline crashes has declined in recent years, but the numbers of small plane crashes have stayed the same over the years. A 2011 NTSB study even found that 94 percent of all fatal aviation accidents involved small plane crashes. Maintenance and manufacturer defects are common factors in such plane crashes.
Cessna 441 Crashed After Dark in Remote Field in Carroll County
It was approximately 7:20 p.m. when pilot Nathan Saari took off from Eagle Creek Airpark in Indianapolis with two passengers on board. They were bound for Green Bay Austin Straubel International Airport, a distance of 389 miles if traveled by car, on the return trip for the journey they had completed that morning.
The Cessna 441 Conquest II that the men were in was registered to Ponderosa Aviation LLC, which shares an address with Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, a dairy company owned by one of the victims. The Cessna Conquest II was last built in 1986, and the planes can seat up to nine people. Cessna has a lengthy history of lawsuits involving their small planes.
Saari took off flying under an instrument flight plan but quickly deviated from the filed plan. At 7:39 p.m., heading against the direction of the flight plan to Green Bay, the Cessna 441 descended from the sky and impacted the ground in a soft, muddy field north of Rossville, Indiana, about 60 miles northwest of Indianapolis.
Witnesses Heard Noise Like “Thunder” when Cessna Conquest II crashed
The Cessna 441 Conquest II lost contact with air traffic controllers shortly before it went down, but area residents heard the plane and the crash. It was 9-1-1 calls by those witnesses, who described the sound of impact like hearing thunder, that helped emergency personnel quickly locate the crash site.
New challenges were waiting at the crash site, however, as first responders had to make their way through the large muddy field in the dark to reach the wreckage. Off-road vehicles, including ATVs, were brought in to access the area. Indiana State Police spokesman Sgt. Kim Riley told media that the wreckage was spread over “quite a big area.”
It took some time for emergency personnel to identify how many people were onboard the Cessna 441, but, from the start, responders did not believe anyone had survived the Rossville plane crash.
“Unfortunately when officers responded to the area near 500 West and 500 South in a field they did find a plane that did crash, and unfortunately at this time there are fatalities,” Indiana Police Sgt. Tony Slocum said in a statement to ABC News. “We believe there are no survivors in this crash.”
Officials closed off the crash site, but Robert Goris works in the area and could see it as he drove out from work the next day.
“Looks like a bomb went off and debris is all over,” Goris told 13WTHR. “Not a whole lot to describe it. Catastrophic.”
Goris also told the news outlet that the plane was unrecognizable and, “just big clumps of metal all over.”
NTSB Releases Preliminary Report for Small Plane Crash
Both the NTSB and FAA will investigate the plane crash in Carroll County (at the accident site and remotely), and the NTSB has already released their preliminary report on the crash. It details the communications between Saari and air traffic control before the crash, the weather and conditions at the time of the crash, and the crash site terrain. It does not give an official cause of the crash, but does provide information that may give an idea of why the Cessna went down.
Pilot Told Indianapolis Air Traffic Controllers That Plane Was Out of Control
Saari filed an instrument flight plan, but deviated from it not long after the plane was in air. The Indianapolis departure controller asked Saari why he had done so, and Saari said that the airplane was out of control. Saari then told the controller that he had a trim problem and was having difficulty controlling the plane. Shortly after that Saari said he had the Cessna back to straight and level and got clearance to climb in altitude.
In his final transmission, Saari told air traffic control that he needed to get control of the airplane and that he was still having difficulty with the trim. The plane was somewhere between 18,000 and 28,000 feet in the air at the time. The preliminary report does not say whether a change in the plane’s direction may have been an attempt to make an emergency landing.
A final report into what caused the plane crash could take months.
CEO of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy Among Indiana Plane Crash Victims
Traveling with Saari were John Pagel and Steve Witcpalek. Pagel was the CEO of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy and served on the Kewaunee County Board representing the Town of Casco. Witcpalek was his son-in-law.
Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy is a 72-year-old family-run business and one that is highly regarded in the region, as was Pagel, who also served as President of the Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative.
Approximately 5,000 people gathered at the Kewaunee High School to pay their respects to Pagel and Witcpalek, an indication of the impact the men had in the community. Don Niles knew Pagel for many years and expressed his thoughts on how Pagel would want people to proceed.
“We’re all here, thousands of us, filled with grief, but John would want us to get past the grief, carry on and make the world a better place,” Niles said in an interview with Green Bay Press Gazette. “John always had fun doing that. It will just be a little less fun now without him and Steve.”
An obituary posted for Nathan Saari said that the pilot was a resident of Marquette, Michigan, and that he graduated from Western Michigan University in 2008, acquiring many years of flight training both during and after college.
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