LAFAYETTE, La. (KLFY) – An eight-passenger private plane took off from Lafayette Regional Airport on the morning of Dec. 28, 2019, at around 9:20 a.m. with six people on board. By 9:21 a.m., the plane had crashed near the U.S. Post Office on Feu Follet Road, killing five of the plane’s passengers and sending a total of four people — including the plane crash’s sole survivor — to local hospitals.
This is the entire story of the crash and the investigation that followed.
Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019
Six people boarded a twin-engine turboprop Piper Cheyenne on a foggy, December morning. Robert Vaughn Crisp II and Wade Berzas, VPs for Global Data Systems, situated themselves on the left side of the plane, facing each other. Gretchen Vincent, the wife of Global Data Systems owner Charles Vincent, sat on the right side, across from Carley McCord, a reporter with WDSU in New Orleans. Gretchen’s son, Michael, sat up front, next to the pilot, Ian Biggs.
In an early morning flight, the group was set to leave Lafayette Regional Airport, bound for Atlanta, Ga., where LSU was taking on Oklahoma in the 2019 Peach Bowl. Along with the slight fog, it was an overcast day with low clouds. According to an interview with Wade Berzas, he had flown with the pilot, Biggs, many times. Berzas said Biggs was known to “climb aggressively” after take-off. The cloudy conditions that day meant that Biggs was making an attempt at getting above the clouds.
According to flight data from flightaware.com, the plane only achieved an altitude of around 375 feet before descending. Berzas remembers feeling “a bit of a jolt” while the plane was still in cloud cover. The jolt felt a bit harder than normal and he felt as if the plane was still going up. Moments later, he heard someone exclaim, “We are going down, people.”
Berzas would be the plane crash’s only survivor.
Eyewitnesses explained that the plane took out power lines and struck a nearby occupied vehicle – the driver of which was among the bystanders taken to the hospital. Video and photos showed a trail of scorched and burning grass around the crash site. The blackened car sat in the post office parking lot, which was carpeted with scattered tree limbs.
Witnesses described the sound of explosions, people screaming, and plumes of black smoke and flames. Kevin Jackson said he heard a “massive explosion” and saw a “big old ball of flame” when the plane crashed. He and other eyewitnesses told News 10 that someone could be heard screaming inside the vehicle that the plane struck as it fell.
The impact of the plane blew out the windows of the nearby post office, and two people inside the post office were among those transported to the hospital, primarily for smoke inhalation, according to Lafayette Fire Chief Robert Benoit.
Those killed in the crash:
- Gretchen D. Vincent, age 51
- Ian E. Biggs, the plane’s pilot, age 51
- Robert Vaughn Crisp II, age 59
- Carley Ann McCord, age 30
- Michael Walker Vincent, age 15
McCord was the wife of Steven Ensminger Jr., the son of the offensive coordinator for LSU. A graduate of Northwestern State, McCord had worked as a reporter for Cox Sports Television, ESPN3, and WDSU New Orleans, while also serving as the in-game host for the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans and NFL’s New Orleans Saints. A joint statement from both the New Orleans Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans was made on Twitter.
Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were on the scene the day of the crash, but little information was released to the public on Saturday.
Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019
The NTSB made its first statements on the crash Sunday morning. Federal officials with the NTSB said the lack of a distress call and flight data recorder coupled with mangled and charred wreckage made finding the cause of a fiery airplane crash extremely challenging.
NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said at a press conference that it could take 12 to 18 months to figure out why the two-engine Piper Cheyenne fell from the sky about a minute after taking off from the Lafayette Regional Airport on Saturday.
“We’ll be looking very carefully at the pilot’s qualifications, the training that they had, medical certification, and also the history on the aircraft and its maintenance records,” Landsberg said. “We have two videos that have been turned into us, and we will be analyzing those.”
Landsberg said that he walked to the crash site on Sunday morning and found debris scattered about a quarter of a mile. Investigators said much of the aircraft was crushed and consumed by fire after it crashed.
“The avionics equipment on board the aircraft was pretty badly damaged,” Landsberg said. “There is no flight data recorder that we know of at this time. We’ll obviously be looking at that, but at this point, there’s not a lot to go on.” The airplane climbed to 900 feet (275 meters), then descended to 700 feet (215 meters) — a dangerously low altitude in the area, Landsberg said.
Meanwhile, local authorities identified the sole survivor from the plane as a 37-year-old man, later identified as Berzas. He was hospitalized though his condition was not immediately known.
Monday, Dec. 30, 2019
Dr. Joey Barrios, medical director of the Our Lady of Lourdes Burn Unit, held a press conference around 12:30 p.m. on the condition of Berzas, the surviving victim of Saturday’s plane crash.
Barrios said Berzas arrived at the emergency room Saturday morning conscious, but with burns on 75% of his body. His shoulder was also dislocated in the crash. He had surgery Monday morning and remained intubated and sedated in the ICU.
Later on, Monday afternoon, the NTSB announced in a press conference that they were searching for witnesses to the crash. This includes audio evidence and residential/business surveillance footage. The press conference they held can be seen below.
Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020
The NTSB released a three-page preliminary report about what happened before, during, and after the crash. The report said that no response was received from the Piper PA 31T plane’s pilot, Ian Biggs, after air traffic control sent a low altitude alert.
Moments later, witnesses said they heard both engines running as the plane descended into trees, striking a utility line near Verot School Road.
The aircraft then struck the road and continued across the United States Postal Service parking lot, the report said. Investigators said the plane descended between 2,000 and 3,000 feet per minute.
“The wreckage path included fragmented and burned pieces of the airplane and tree debris, and extended from the trees and transmission line, along an approximate bearing of 315°, for 789 ft,” the report said. “The right wing, the outboard left wing, both engines, both elevator controls, the rudder, the instrument panel, and forward cabin separated from the main fuselage and pieces were located in the debris field. The main wreckage consisted of the main fuselage and the inboard left wing.”
News 10 spoke with Robert Katz, a certified flight instructor and commercial pilot. Katz speculated that an engine failure occurred based on what he read in the report and patterns in past crashes.
“When we have an engine failure in a twin-engine airplane, we’re now faced with an asymmetric thrust condition, which basically means that the airplane is flying out of balance, if you will, with available power, and it’s going to require specific skill to mitigate that problem,” Katz stated.
May 17, 2020
The Daily Advertiser reported that Steven Ensminger Jr., husband of Carley McCord, filed a lawsuit in early May against the plane’s owners and the pilot’s estate.
Ensminger’s lawsuit claims the plane’s owners and the pilot, Biggs, were negligent in McCord’s death, failing to properly maintain the plane and letting Biggs fly in unfavorable weather conditions without proper training. Ensminger’s suit stated he was seeking damages from the plane’s owners Global Data Systems, Inc., Cheyenne Partners, LLC., Eagle Air, LLC. and Southern Lifestyle Development Company, LLC.; the insurance companies Sompo International Holdings and LTD., Endurance American Insurance Company; and the estate of Biggs.
Global Data Systems is owned by Charles Vincent. His wife and son, 51-year-old Gretchen Vincent; and 15-year-old Michael Walker Vincent, also died in the crash. Robert Vaughn Crisp II, another victim, was the vice president of business development and field services at the company. Berzas was the vice president of sales.
Sep. 16, 2021
The NTSB released 29 documents detailing the crash, including a number of highly technical investigations of the airplane. They also included summaries of interviews with Biggs’ wife and Berzas. Other documents included pictures of the plane’s flight path, witness reports and extensive factual reports from air traffic controllers, weather reports from the day of the crash, and extensive cataloging of the plane’s remains.
Wade Berzas tells his story
One of the documents includes a summary of an interview with Berzas, the lone survivor of the crash.
Berzas told the NTSB “he sat in the aft, forward-facing seat on the left side of the airplane. The other male passenger (Crisp) sat in front of him on the left side. The two female passengers (McCord and Gretchen Vincent) were in the right-side forward and aft-facing seats. The younger male passenger (Michael Vincent) was seated in the co-pilot seat.”
Berzas said he buckled his seatbelt and did not notice anything out of the ordinary, though he noted Biggs did not provide a safety briefing prior to the flight.
“The engine start, taxi, and takeoff roll were completely normal; nothing was out of the ordinary based upon his previous flights,” stated the NTSB summary. “The takeoff roll and rotation seemed completely normal.”
Berzas, who had flown in the same plane 8-10 times before with Biggs, said he felt the plane climbing as he had many times before. He said Biggs was known to take off, stabilize the plane and then “climb aggressively.” Cloudy conditions that day meant Biggs was making an attempt at getting above the clouds.
Berzas reported “a bit of a jolt or pitching moment” and Crisp made a comment that the plane was going up. Berzas noted that the jolt was harder than he was used to. At the time, the plane was into cloud cover. No abnormal sounds were reported, nor did he report any comments from the cockpit. He did note, however, that he did not have a clear view of the cockpit and could not see what Biggs was doing.
Moments later, according to Berzas, Crisp remarked “We are going down, people.”
“At that moment Mr. Berzas looked out the window and saw a glimpse of the ground for a moment – he recalled that there was no time to think or react,” stated the report. “He recalled that it still felt like the airplane was climbing right up to the point where the impact sequence started.”
Berzas, a firefighter who had previously trained for moments just like this one, “braced for impact, grabbed his seat belt buckle and tucked his head down … During the initial impact sequence, [Berzas] heard lots of noise and crunching; he never heard anything from the other people on board.”
When the plane struck the ground, there was a fireball from the right side of the plane, Berzas stated. Berzas held his breath and kept his head down as the airplane slid and came to a stop. Berzas was hanging upside down at this point and had hurt his right arm. He unbuckled himself with his left arm and walked away from the airplane. A bystander on the scene helped Berzas get away from the wreckage.
Multiple witnesses gave their accounts
Another document released by the NTSB included 23 witness emails, many of which reported hearing the plane’s engines “at full throttle,” “surging,” “straining” and/or “whining.”
“I noticed something different about the engines it sounded like the engine’s power was surging,” stated witness Adam Levesque, who was loading a cargo trailer when the plane passed overhead. “…Before we lost sight of the plane it was at least 85% upside down before it crashed, then we saw the plumes of black smoke. I tried to contact 911 about the crash three times and each time it was busy. Five minutes later we heard the sirens.”
“Plane was flying straight and level, but was pitching up and down quickly,” stated witness Dennis DeVaney, who reported that the plane was roughly 150 feet off the ground when he saw it. He also saw the planes strike power lines along Verot School Rd., which plunged much of the surrounding neighborhood into a blackout until the early afternoon.
“My son and I heard the sound of the engine fly overhead, extremely low at full throttle,” stated witness Duke Word. “It sounded like it was running wide open on one engine and like the fuel nozzles were spitting fuel or dripping into the engine instead of being vaporized. From my experience as an aviation mechanic and pilot, the sound was not normal.”
“It sounded normal at first but low (altitude) then the RPMs started speeding up and it sounded like it was in a dive,” stated witness Fred Sarver. “I couldn’t see it because of the clouds but it sounded like it was coming right for me, very high RPMs. It was screaming, wheels were not down, to me he was not setting up for a landing.”
“I could hear the screams of people on fire and a lady screaming to help her,” stated witness Michelle Rawls. “The parking lot [was] very hot to walk on with no shoes. It was already on fire I had to back out. I finally got [through] to 911 to report I was blocking off LEU Field road to keep people from driving that close to the plane in the field and fires.”
Witness Zac Cheramie identified himself as one of the bystanders that helped pull Berzas from the wreckage:
The morning of the accident I was in my apartment fixing to walk out the door when I heard a very very loud sound, unmistakably the sound of props on an aircraft, it sounded as though the props were at full throttle, they were screaming, immediately after hearing that I heard a huge explosion, simultaneously the power went out in my apartment, this all happened very quickly, tenths of a second…I’ve read reports that some say that the engines were out and I will argue that this was not the case, I knew exactly what it was from my decade of service in the Marine Corps specifically in the Air Wing…
…once I got within about 10 ft is when myself and another gentlemen saw two bodies of the five on board, quickly determined that they have perished, made our way around to the front of the cockpit when we discovered the survivor, at this point it was a handful of us out there, we pulled him from the wreckage to safety, once we sat him down I asked his name and how many others on board, he told me 5 and then told me who the pilot was, , we kept searching for the others but could not find them assuming and concluding that they were trapped in the burning aircraft. I continued to talk to him while assessing his physical state, made a point to keep him talking to get as much info as I could, at this point the first responders started to show up…
…I assisted in carrying [Berzas] to the ambulance and asked him the same things over and he was consistent with his answers. I tried to pass this info to which ever authorities would listen but none seemed interested, it was chaos, no one asked me to stick around to make a statement which shocked me.
The NTSB released its final report on the Dec. 28, 2019 in May 2022. The final report determined that the probable cause of the incident was the pilot’s loss of control of the airplane due to spatial disorientation during the initial climb in instrument meteorological conditions.
The report states:
In summary, postaccident examination of the airplane structures and systems revealed no anomalies that would have precluded normal operation. The weather conditions at the time of takeoff were conducive to the development of spatial disorientation. The lack of visual references and the airplane’s increasing pitch attitude likely caused the pilot to become spatially disoriented during the initial climb, as evidenced by the airplane’s continuing and tightening turn to the left away from the intended course. Thus, the pilot’s spatial disorientation led to his loss of control of the airplane.
The report defines spatial disorientation as a “loss of proper bearings; state of mental confusion as to position, location, or movement relative to the position of the earth.” The pilot needs to believe what the flight instruments show about the airplane’s attitude regardless of what their natural senses tell them.
The plane departed from Lafayette Regional Airport at 9:20 a.m., according to flight records. It reached a maximum altitude of 925 feet and reached an airspeed of 169 knots. One minute after takeoff, the plane reached a maximum airspeed of 197 knots when it started to descend in altitude and roll to the left.
The controller issued a low-altitude alert, stating the pilot should “check the airplane’s altitude immediately.” The pilot did not respond and no mayday or emergency transmission were received. It continued its descent, striking trees and power lines before crashing along Feu Follet Rd. in a parking lot of a nearby post office, striking a car.
The airplane continued to travel, shedding parts before coming to rest at the far end of an adjacent field. The plane was only in the air for one minute according to ADS-B flight tracking data.