RENO — A pilot was making low passes over people at a party shortly before his small plane nose-dived into a cow pasture in Northern Nevada, killing all five people aboard, a federal investigator said Sunday.
National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration investigators on Sunday combed the wreckage for clues as to whether a mechanical problem caused the crash a day before near Gardnerville, about 50 miles south of Reno.
“It’s way too early to determine the cause,” NTSB investigator Van McKenny told The Associated Press. “We haven’t ruled out anything at this point. We still need to continue to examine the aircraft.”
Investigators were unable to examine the engines on Sunday because both were buried in the ground, he said. They will be examined at a Sacramento, Calif., warehouse after the wreckage is removed from the site today.
McKenny said witnesses told him that the pilot, Gary Annas, 58, of Minden, was making low passes over the party shortly after taking off from the nearby Minden Tahoe Airport when his twin-engine Beechcraft BE95 made a steep turn and crashed.
Annas had earlier stopped by the “branding” party to ask if anyone wanted to accompany him on the local flight that was to start and end at the airport, McKenny said. Such parties involve participants who brand cattle and then celebrate.
The crash occurred about 12 miles from the airport in the rural Carson Valley along the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
The passengers were identified as Paul Dallas, 43, of Minden; Leia Denner, 40, and Brent Fahey, 30, both of Gardnerville; and Beau McGrath, 30, of Kirkwood, Calif.
Witness Douglas Bradshaw, a former pilot, said the plane appeared to be flying normally at a relatively high speed before it crashed about 100 yards from his house.
He said the plane passed about 200 feet over his home as he and his wife were sitting on the patio, then suddenly climbed, lost lift and spun into the ground.
“The engines were roaring and working great. It sounded like he had full power,” Bradshaw said. “The mystery is why would someone suddenly pitch up into a vertical climbing position. It was pretty frightening because it just happened so fast.”
Annas, owner of GMA Aircraft Sales at the Minden airport, was an experienced pilot who had been flying since he was a teen, said Al Gangwish, president of Hutt Aviation in Minden.
“I was very shocked to find out about the crash because he has a lot of experience,” Gangwish said. “Gary had a very successful business and was very well liked and did it the right way. He’ll definitely be missed.”
It was windy and hazy at the time of the crash, said Douglas County sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Halsey.
Mark Faucette, a National Weather Service forecaster in Reno, said gusts of up to 25 mph were reported at the time in the Carson Valley.
Investigators also have requested Air Traffic Control and radar data, saying it could help provide clues. The small craft had no black box.
NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said it typically takes his agency 12 to 18 month to issue crash conclusions.