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NTSB: Plane pitched up, down before fatal Maryland crash

Posted December 9, 2014
Updated June 25

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— Seconds before a jet piloted by a Durham pharmaceutical executive crashed in a suburban Washington, D.C., neighborhood Monday morning, a stall warning sounded in the plane's cockpit, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.

The crash in Gaithersburg, Md., killed all three people on the plane, as well as a mother and her two young sons on the ground, authorities said.

Dr. Michael Rosenberg, 66, president and chief executive of Durham-based Health Decisions, a global clinical research firm, was piloting the Embraer EMB-500/Phenom 100 twin-engine jet, according to the NTSB. The plane was registered to Sage Aviation LLC of Chapel Hill, which is owned by Rosenberg.

Rosenberg's two passengers were identified Tuesday as David Hartman, 52, vice president of clinical pharmacology, pharmacokinetics and nonclinical development at Nuventra Inc., a Durham-based clinical pharmacology consulting firm, and Chiji Ogbuka, 31, of Raleigh, a regulatory affairs manager with Health Decisions.

Authorities identified the three people on the ground who were killed as 36-year-old Marie Gemmell and sons Cole, 3, and Devin, 1 month.

The jet took off Monday morning from Chapel Hill on its way to Montgomery County Airpark in Maryland, about a mile from the crash site. Hartman's pastor said he believes the men were on their way to Washington to meet with U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials.

During a Tuesday afternoon news conference, Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB member, said the jet's flight data recorder showed that the jet was preparing to land – its flaps were extended and its wheels were down – when an automated "stall call-out" began sounding. The alert, which indicates an impending aerodynamic stall, started 20 seconds before the data recorder stopped working and continued sounding until the end, he said.

An aerodynamic stall is unrelated to engine activity, Sumwalt said. It would occur if the angle of the plane disrupted the airflow over the wings and limited the lift needed to keep the plane aloft.

The flight data recorder also noted "large excursions" in the jet's pitch – the up and down angle of its nose – and roll – the angle of its wings, Sumwalt said. A pilot in a nearby plane and two pilots on the ground also told NTSB investigators that the jet was pitching, he said.

NTSB investigators have found no evidence of any engine failure or of a bird strike, Sumwalt said. They and teams from the Federal Aviation Administration, Embraer, engine maker Pratt & Whitney and airline safety officials in Canada and Brazil are still trying to determine if the engines and plane operated properly, he said.

Sumwalt said he hadn't listened to the cockpit voice recorder and couldn't comment on what Rosenberg told air traffic controllers before the crash.

Rosenberg crashed a different plane in Gaithersburg on March 1, 2010, according to the NTSB. In that incident, a propeller-driven plane slid off the runway into a snow-covered tree line.

Don Holzworth, an executive-in-residence at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Rosenberg was an adjunct faculty member, said he spoke with Rosenberg after the 2010 crash.

"He spoke about not flying again, but I knew him well enough to know that he would be in the air again soon," Holzworth said.

Michael Jacobs, a longtime friend and a member of Health Decisions' board of directors, said piloting was part of Rosenberg's nature.

"The fact that he was a pilot, that is the way he was in life," Jacobs said. "He always wanted to be the pilot and not the passenger. He’s thoroughly enjoyed flying all these years."

Jacobs described his friend as a forward-thinking and driven entrepreneur. Rosenberg, a physician, former manager at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, founded Health Decisions in 1989.

"He was a very passionate person. He believed in doing things to the fullest," Jacobs said. "He loved his business. He worked on it as hard as any entrepreneur I’ve ever seen."

Rosenberg was "a great visionary" who cared about improving drug development, his friend said.

"He pushed the envelope to try and create efficiencies in the drug discovery business that other people hadn’t," he said.

He is survived by his wife, Alicia Paladin, an executive at Health Decisions, and two adult children, Zachary and Caroline.

Meanwhile, Hartman's neighbors and his pastor described him as brilliant, caring and mild-mannered.

"He preferred to be in the background a lot, but when you got him one- on-one, he really stepped up," said Rev. Duane Beck, pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church. "His top values and priorities were his work and his family."

"He was just an all-around great guy," neighbor Rose Allen said. "If he wasn’t out talking to my husband, he’d be shooting ball with the boys."

Hartman had worked at Nuventra since January 2013. Before that, he was senior director of preclinical development at Aptiv Solutions, a pharmaceutical clinical trials company in Durham. He is survived by his wife, Janet, and two adult children, Elaine and Andrew.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of David and will miss him both personally and professionally,” Nuventra Chief Executive Geoffrey Banks said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with David’s family as well as others affected by this terrible tragedy.”

Allen and Chet Mebane said their north Raleigh neighborhood is in shock over Hartman's death.

"It’s very, very sad," Allen said. "You can tell something’s happened here. Everyone’s just gotten real quiet."

"We’re just trying to take everything in right now," Mebane said.

Ogbuka also was an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland's online University College, and his LinkedIn profile states he was a bioethics lecturer at the University of Saint Mary.

A man who answered the door at Ogbuka's Raleigh apartment declined to comment.

“Our deepest condolences, thoughts and prayers go out to the Ogbuka family on the tragic loss of our valued colleague Chijioke ‘Chiji’ Ogbuka in yesterday’s accident," Patrick Phillips, vice president for clinical affairs at Health Decisions, said in a statement.

The jet struck three houses during the fiery, mid-morning crash. After the first home was hit, the fuselage landed in the front lawn of an adjacent home, which was heavily damaged by fire. Investigators said they believe one of the wings, which had fuel inside, was sheared off and tore through the front of the Gemmell home, Sumwalt said. Witnesses reported seeing and hearing a secondary explosion after the plane hit the ground.

Gemmell and her two sons were found in a second-floor bathroom. She was lying on top of the boys in an apparent effort to shield them from the smoke and fire, police said.

Her husband issued a statement Tuesday expressing deep grief and requesting privacy for himself and his daughter, Arabelle. Neither was home at the time of the crash.

No one was injured in the adjacent homes that also had major damage.

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  • Jimm57 Dec 10, 2014

    While I'm not ruling out a stall, I'm thinking that they may have run out of fuel because there doesn't seem to be that much burned on the ground. Sad to think another 2 gal of Jet A would've made it a successful landing.

  • Trixie Dec 10, 2014

    I just can't stop thinking about the poor husband. To lose your wife and two small sons in such a horrific accident is heartbreaking. The baby was only a month old. I know it's unreasonable but I'm angry at the pilot for causing this. When people choose to fly in a private plane like this they are at least aware that something may happen. But the mother and two kids were in their own house. No one expects a plane to hit their home.

  • blowboater Dec 10, 2014

    When a plane stalls one wing will drop before the other. I suspected this was the case. I read earlier that he was landing behind a 172. Much slower plane. I think he was concerned about running up on the cessna and and lost focus. Landing dirty (flaps down) slow flight, Very little altitude is the most dangerous part of flying. The stall horn gave him plenty of time to go full power and go around. Also it sounds several kts before you reach the point of stalling. He may have thought he could fly right on the edge of losing lift.

  • Eq Videri Dec 10, 2014
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    According to yesterday's NTSB briefing, the pilot had 20 seconds of stall warning. He had plenty of time for TOGO.

    Reminds me of the American Eagle crash near RDUIA 20 years ago: too slow air speed on approach = stall = people killed.

  • New Holland Dec 10, 2014
    user avatar

    Airspeed on final approach is critical to a successful landing. Without, evidence of other causes this looks like the first of several causes that ended this flight.

  • Lightfoot3 Dec 10, 2014

    Sounds like the classic stall on approach. Even if it was a bird strike, I'd figure he still had a decent glide path and would put it down in a controlled manner. Back when I use to fly, I had a wind shear hit me once on final. Scary, but per training I quickly recovered. At this point I'm thinking he wasn't paying enough attention to his airspeed and/or his pitch and stalled it too close to the ground to recover.

  • sinenomine Dec 10, 2014

    The only private pilot I ever trusted and willingly went up with was a now deceased cousin by marriage who had flown with RAF Ferry Command during the Second World War. Those people could fly anything anywhere anytime and survive; they even get favorable mention in Gann's classic "Fate Is The Hunter". Others, at least IMO, not so much.

  • HeadsUp Dec 10, 2014

    Sounds like the pilot stalled the plane.

  • Eq Videri Dec 9, 2014
    user avatar

    The vast majority of plane crashes -- not all, but most by far -- are the result of pilot error.

    We humans are deeply fallible, even brilliant high-achievers.

    Take great care in all that you do.

  • V1ROT8 Dec 9, 2014

    Prayers to all the familys of the victims. As a corporate pilot we are required to have extensive training every year to maintain our currency in these types of aircraft. This is one of the busiest phases of a flight and many things can happen. I'll save all speculation as to what happened until the NTSB investigates. So sad for all involved.

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