The pilot of the private aircraft that crashed in Virginia on Sunday had a 40-year career that began with crop dusting and grew into a profession with a strong reputation for safety.
Captain Jeff Hefner served on the board of directors for the pilots union of Southwest Airlines, the airline from which he retired as a pilot.
“Jeff was a defender of his fellow pilots’ safety, careers, and family,” the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association said in a statement, according to The Washington Post. “We offer our deepest condolences to his wife, his family, and his friends. The aviation community has lost a true champion.”
Dan Newlin, a Florida-based attorney who told the Post he had flown with Hefner more than 100 times, went even further.
He called Hefner “Mr. Safety.”
“When it came to flying, he was always super serious, super cautious and very focused,” Newlin told the Post. “He knew aviation inside and out. It was his passion.”
He stated that he recruited Hefner for his company after observing his 25,000 flight hours and certification as an aircraft mechanic during his 25 years with Southwest.
According to the Post, the Federal Aviation Administration recently granted Hefner the highest level of medical certification.
The ongoing investigation is hampered by the difficult terrain of the accident site and the plane’s devastation upon impact.
“Experts say publicly available data indicates the plane might have lost pressurization, leaving the pilot and passengers unconscious and the jet on autopilot until it ran out of fuel,” the Post reported.
The pilot and three passengers may have died of asphyxia prior to the accident, according to current theories that appear to be consistent with the available information.
CNN reported on Tuesday that flight control lost contact with the Cessna Citation just 15 minutes after it took off from Elizabethton, Tennessee, en route to Long Island MacArthur Airport in New York. The communications failure occurred at an altitude of 31,000 feet.
The jet climbed to an altitude of 34,000 feet before flying past MacArthur Airport. It reversed course and headed south toward Washington, D.C. It was believed that the Cessna was on autopilot.
John Kirby, White House National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, told reporters on Monday that six F-16 aircraft were dispatched from three bases in order to intercept the plane.
An F-16 pilot told investigators that Hefner was visibly stooped over his seat in the cockpit, according to an unnamed source cited by the Post in a separate article.
The F-16 pilot encountered the Cessna approximately 12 minutes prior to its collision in the Virginia highlands near Waynesboro.
“Whatever happened, happened at altitude, which is a critical location to lose pressurization. The higher up in altitude you are, the less time you have to get on oxygen,” former Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jeff Guzzetti told the Post.
Pilots have “30 to 60 seconds to don oxygen masks if the plane is depressurized or risk falling unconscious” due to hypoxia, according to CNN.
“The onset of symptoms is so subtle that it’s hard for a person to tell when it is happening to them. They might begin breathing at an increased rate, feel dizzy, lose coordination and experience impaired judgment,” the news outlet reported. “When a brain goes without oxygen for too long, the part of the brain that helps with respiration can stop working and prevent a person from breathing.”
Although the Cessna private aircraft was not required to have them, investigators are searching for “black boxes” containing flight data.
Guzzetti told the Post that the NTSB will investigate what may have caused the Cessna’s cabin to depressurize on Sunday and why Hefner was seemingly unable to don his oxygen mask before losing consciousness.
The aircraft’s registration was held by Encore Motors of Melbourne, Florida. In addition to Hefner, company owner John Rumpel stated that his daughter Adina Azarian, his 2-year-old granddaughter Aria, and the child’s caregiver perished on the aircraft.
Rumpel is a prominent contributor to Republican candidates and causes, including former President Donald Trump, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, Senator Mitt Romney, and numerous state Republican parties.
“We are devastated by the news of this tragedy which took the lives of Jeff and all three passengers,” Hefner’s family said in a statement issued through an attorney, according to the Post. “Our hearts are full of sorrow for John and Barbara Rumpel for the loss of their daughter, granddaughter and nanny.”