A small plane carrying Oklahoma State University's women's basketball coach and his assistant plummeted into the mountains of central Arkansas on Thursday, killing them in the second deadly air accident involving the university's athletic program in recent years. Also killed were the pilot, who is a former state senator, and the pilot's wife.
Coach Kurt Budke, 50, and his assistant, Miranda Serna, 36, were heading to Little Rock for a recruiting trip Thursday. The single-engine plane flown by former state Sen. Olin Branstetter, 82, crashed at 4:30 p.m. about 45 miles northwest of Little Rock in the Ouachita National Forest's Winona Wildlife Management Area. Branstetter's wife, Paula, 79, also was on the plane.
A deer hunter saw the plane shortly before the accident.
“He was having problems,” Barry Rankin said.
“I thought he was flying fairly low and then I heard heavy throttling, and I thought he was trying to gain altitude.
“I could hear heavier and heavier throttling. I actually looked back because I thought that it was going to come over the ridge on top of me. I heard the torquing of the engine, and then there was just a big crash and a shock wave that went through the valley.”
OSU President Burns Hargis struggled with his emotions when he discussed the crash at a news conference Friday.
“The Oklahoma State family is devastated by this tragedy,” Hargis said.
“Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of Kurt Budke, Miranda Serna and the other victims.”
The Branstetters also were prominent members of the OSU family, having both endowed academic scholarships.
The accident came just two months shy of the anniversary of the Jan. 27, 2001, plane crash in Colorado that killed 10 people affiliated with the men's basketball program.
“Those comparisons and reflections will obviously come up,” Hargis said.
“We pulled together then. It was a very hard time, but under the leadership of Jim Halligan and coach (Eddie) Sutton, somehow we all made it to the other side without ever forgetting. We'll always remember, and we'll always remember Kurt and Miranda.”
Gov. Mary Fallin announced Friday that flags at state buildings will fly at half staff Monday in remembrance of the victims.
A memorial service was set for 1 p.m. Monday at Gallagher-Iba Arena on the OSU campus in Stillwater.
The Federal Aviation Administration was investigating the crash, along with the National Transportation Safety Board.
The FAA said the plane crashed under unknown circumstances and that no flight plan was filed, nor was one required. NTSB officials said the investigation was in its preliminary stages.
The single-engine Piper PA-28-180 Cherokee aircraft, manufactured in 1964, crashed into a mountainside near Perryville, which is about 12 minutes by air from the Little Rock airport and is in a dense forest, said Larry Miller, Petit Jean County Headlight front page editor.
Rankin, the Little Rock businessman who was hunting in the area, said he used a GPS device to guide an Arkansas State Police helicopter to the crash scene, but the remote location and thick forest obscured the crash site from the chopper until officials finally found it nearly two hours later.
The plane's nose plowed into the top of a steep ridge, creating a five-foot crater, said Mike Surrett, chief deputy criminal investigator at the Perry County Sheriff's Department.