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.
According to the report, the plane had undergone an annual inspection just a week before the accident. During that inspection, the plane's muffler was removed, repaired and reinstalled, according to the report.
Investigators disassembled the muffler after the crash and found no problems that existed before the crash, according to the report. Likewise, the plane's airframe and engine showed no problems that could have caused the crash, according to the report.
An autopsy report released last year shows Olin Branstetter's cause of death as multiple blunt force injuries. A Federal Aviation Administration toxicology report shows no drugs or alcohol were detected in his muscle tissue.
Records show investigators didn't perform tests for cyanide or carbon monoxide poisoning. NTSB inspectors said it was impossible to perform those tests with the amount of tissue available.
Budke, 50, and Serna, 36, were heading from Stillwater to Little Rock for a recruiting trip. 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.