Steamboat Springs Yampa Valley Regional Airport officials said the weather changed dramatically in the minutes before a Sunday plane crash that killed the pilot and a passenger and injured four others.
Airport Manager Dave Ruppel said Monday that two Pilatus PC-12s took off from Yampa Valley Regional Airport en route to Casper, Wyo., just 16 and 21 minutes before Sunday’s 3:28 p.m. crash. Those pilots reported visibility of 10 miles at the time.
But a snow squall quickly reduced visibility at the airport to less than a quarter of a mile as the Cessna 414A owned by Scott Humpal of Corpus Christi, Texas, neared the runway.
“Sunday’s storm seemed to have bands,” Ruppel said. “At the time of the crash it was one of those bands that comes through where visibility goes down to nothing.”
Ruppel said the visibility improved soon after the crash.
Scott Humpal’s wife, Gaby, died in the crash. So did the pilot, 75-year-old Hans Vandervlught of Woodsboro, Texas. The Humpals’ three children survived, although 10-year-old Sara is in critical condition at Children’s Hospital in Denver.
As is standard procedure for pilots approaching YVRA, Vandervlugt contacted the airport’s Unicom communications facility when he was 10 miles from the runway. Ruppel said the pilot was briefed on altimeter and weather readings and was likely told visibility at the airport was less than a quarter of a mile. Still, he said it’s not uncommon for pilots to proceed with the approach.
“It’s up to the pilot to make the decision to land,” Ruppel said.
He said air traffic controllers in Denver can clear the pilot for an approach, but when a pilot reaches an altitude of 450 feet and cannot see the runway, pilots often follow a missed approach procedure and delay the landing.
Ruth Vandervlugt, Hans’ wife of 40 years, said Monday that her husband started flying gliders in Holland when he was 14 and has since taken to the skies “just about every day.”
“That was his passion, that was his passion,” she said from their hometown of Refugio, Texas. “He was a very outstanding person, a very personable person, and everybody liked him.”
She and her husband have lived in the small town near Corpus Christi for 40 years. Hans is originally from the Netherlands. Ruth estimated that her husband had piloted for the Humpal family for at least 10 years. He was the owner of Vanair Aviation Services and was an active member of a glider club at the airport.
Ruth said she was tracking his flight on FlightAware.com on Sunday, and called YVRA when noticed the plane hadn't landed. She said the plane's emergency locator transmitter was activated and that the aircraft was tracked by satellite.
“It was just so devastating,” she said about the crash.
Ruppel said the Humpals’ plane impacted the ground 30 to 40 yards from the runway.
West Routt Fire Protection District Chief Bryan Rickman said the airport’s maintenance crews immediately plowed a path to the crash site to make it easier for ambulances to take the survivors from the scene.
“There was not a lot of damage to the plane, and there was no fire so it made our response much easier,” Rickman said. “Our first concern was for the care of the patients, and we had very good access to them.”
YVRA was closed to all inbound and outbound air traffic Sunday afternoon and evening. The FAA cleared airport operations to continue at 7:15 a.m. this morning, and airport officials said all regularly scheduled flights are a go for the remainder of the day. This morning's United Airlines flight due to depart YVRA at 6:26 a.m. was canceled.
Ruppel said investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Hayden today to investigate the crash. They are expected to examine the crash site until 3 p.m. today and continue their investigation Tuesday.
Sara Humpal was transported to Children's Hospital in Denver in critical condition this morning. Her two brothers, Tad, 18, and Dillon, 13, and her father are listed in fair condition at Yampa Valley Medical Center.
Firefighters stationed at the airport said they arrived at the wreckage and began tending to the deceased and the four injured passengers one minute after they received a 911 call from Scott Humpal.
Rickman, who was among the first rescuers to reach the crash site, said paramedics attempted to resuscitate Gaby Humpal.
Rescuers said the survivors complained about injuries ranging from neck pain to bone fractures.
Yampa Valley Medical Center spokeswoman Christine McKelvie confirmed this morning that Sara Humpal had been transferred to another facility. A spokeswoman at Children's Hospital in Denver couldn't confirm whether Sara Humpal had arrived but said hospital staff were expecting her.
In a Facebook post at about 10 a.m. today, Scott Humpal said Sara underwent surgery to fix two fractures in her leg. He said her collapsed lungs have re-inflated and that she has a subdural hematoma, a lacerated kidney and liver, a broken collar bone and an "unstable fracture" of the T6 vertebrae. Scott Humpal said his daughter will have surgery on her back in Denver.
He also reported that his son Dillon has a lumbar compression fracture and "some cervical instability." His son Tad is experiencing neck, back and ankle pain. Scott Humpal said he is suffering from back, neck and rib pain as well as a sprained ankle and a broken ankle.
"We will have to stay in Steamboat until we are able to travel ... please pray for Sara's recovery and Gaby's soul ... thank you all for your concerns and messages," he wrote.