WASHINGTON _ The 82-year-old pilot of a plane carrying four people, including two Oklahoma State University basketball coaches, lost control of the aircraft just before it crashed in Arkansas in 2011, killing all aboard, according to a report released Thursday.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the crash of the single engine plane near Perryville, Arkansas, could not determine why Olin Branstetter lost control of the plane. No mechanical difficulties were found; the plane had undergone its annual inspection just a week before.
No drugs were found in Branstetter's system; an autopsy noted that the condition of the remains did not allow for identification of any medical conditions which may have contributed to the crash, according to the NTSB.
The Nov. 17, 2011 crash killed Branstetter; his wife, Paula, 79; OSU women's basketball coach Kurt Budke, 50; and his assistant, Miranda Serna, 36.
The plane was bound for Little Rock on a recruiting trip. It was a clear day, with only light winds, and the temperature was in the low 50s.
Paula Branstetter was certified to fly the plane, but was not in the front seat as a co-pilot during the flight.
According to statements from employees at the Stillwater Regional Terminal, where the flight originated, Branstetter wanted Budke to sit in the front seat with him. Budke initially refused, but agreed to sit up front during the flight.
The single-engine Piper PA-28-180 Cherokee aircraft, manufactured in 1964, crashed at 4:10 p.m, about two hours after leaving Stillwater, about 45 miles northwest of Little Rock in the Ouachita National Forest's Winona Wildlife Management Area.
Witnesses said the plane's engine revved repeatedly just before the crash and that the pilot appeared to be making a turn before it went into a slow downward spiral.
One witness reported hearing “what sounded like an airplane engine overspeeding 5-7 (seconds), then power came off for about 2 (seconds), then power back on overspeeding for about 5-7 (seconds) then no sound at all.”
The NTSB investigation showed that the control cables had been fractured in multiple places and that the fractures were “consistent with overload,'' suggesting that they may have broken from the stress put on them as someone was struggling to control the plane.
The seat belts for Olin Branstetter and Budke were still latched after the crash, though the belts in the rear were unlatched.
NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said the agency did a thorough investigation, looking at the “man, the environment and the machine” and was able to determine only that the pilot had lost control of the plane.
“Beyond that, we don't have anything else,'' he said.
Paul Branstetter, Olin and Paula Branstetter's son, said the NTSB's probable cause seemed “generic” and didn't answer many questions. Paul Branstetter, himself a pilot, said he took the findings to mean the agency wasn't able to find anything more specific.
“I don't think we'll ever have an answer,” he said.
Now more than a year after the crash, Paul Branstetter said the family has had a difficult time coping with the loss of both of his parents in a single incident.
“It's a struggle,” he said.
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.
Branstetter, a former Oklahoma state senator, had flown coaches to trips before. At the time, OSU officials exercised limited oversight in cases where donors offered to fly university personnel for free. A travel policy was in place for student athletes, but coaches and athletic staff were allowed a great amount of leeway in making their own travel arrangements.
OSU officials amended that policy last November to place greater restrictions on travel. Among other changes, the new policy ended the practice of allowing coaches to exercise their own discretion when making travel arrangements that don't include student athletes.
The new policy also requires that a university aviation consultant approve all private aircraft that would be used for university business, as well as the pilots who would fly them.
OSU officials said they overhauled the policy as a result of the crash, but didn't tailor it to the specific facts of the accident. Officials wouldn't speculate as to whether last year's fatal flight would have taken off had the new policy been in force. However, both Branstetter and the plane would have had to receive approval from an aviation consultant before flying.