The only passenger certified to fly a plane that crashed on Nov. 17, 2011, in Arkansas, killing two Oklahoma State University coaches, was seated in the rear of the plane, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report.
That position likely would have placed her out of reach of the flight controls if the 82-year-old pilot of the aircraft had suffered a medical emergency.
Paula Branstetter, wife of pilot Olin Branstetter, was seated behind her husband at the time of the crash, an NTSB factual report shows. Paula Branstetter, 79, also held a private pilot certificate.
Thomas Anthony, director of the University of Southern California's Aviation Safety and Security Program, said no hard-and-fast rule exists that would have required that Paula Branstetter be in the front of the aircraft.
Compared to the regulations that govern commercial airlines, Anthony said, rules concerning light aircraft like the one the Branstetters owned are relatively few. Even though no established rules or best practices would have required that Paula Branstetter be within reach of the flight controls, he said, it would have been prudent for her to be seated in front.
“It wouldn't be a bad idea,” he said. “It's not something that everybody knows and everybody knows they should do.”
But Mel Burkart, a professor emeritus of aviation science at St. Louis University, said a seating arrangement like the one the report outlines wouldn't have been uncommon, no matter whether any of the passengers were certified pilots. In this case, he said, it's possible one of the coaches simply asked to sit in the front next to the pilot.
“That happens frequently,” he said. “When you take people who are not accustomed to flying with you, they want to sit up front and see what's going on.”
In this case, he said, it's possible Paula Branstetter could have prevented the crash if she'd been seated in the front of the aircraft, but it's impossible to say for sure based on the records that have been released.
The single-engine Piper PA-28-180 Cherokee aircraft crashed into the mountains of central Arkansas, killing the Branstetters, women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna.
The report, which was issued Thursday, offered few clues about what caused the crash. NTSB officials expect to release a probable cause report in the coming months.