Plane crashes near Palolo
• Photo gallery: One fatality confirmed in East Oahu plane crash
PÄLOLO VALLEY — Federal Aviation Administration investigators today plan to inspect the scene of a fiery Piper Cherokee crash that killed at least one person yesterday just off the Lanipo Trail in East Honolulu.
The 1969 single-engine, Piper PA-32-300 was destroyed by fire when it crashed near Ka'au Crater some time before 2 p.m. in low cloud cover and drizzly skies.
Honolulu fire officials yesterday said they did not know how many people were aboard.
The plane was registered to Honolulu veterinarian Nicholas Palumbo, who owns The Cat Clinic on Kapahulu Avenue, which calls itself Hawai'i's only animal hospital exclusively for cats.
People who answered the phone at Palumbo's home yesterday said they were trying to keep the phone lines open and had no information.
Charles "Charlie" Palumbo, a member of the Kuli'ou'ou-Kalani Iki Neighborhood Board, confirmed that his father owned the plane but declined to comment until more information is available.
Yesterday, Palumbo's Piper Cherokee was en route from Läna'i to Honolulu when it apparently crashed, according to FAA spokes-man Ian Gregor.
Air traffic controllers lost radar and radio contact with the plane around 1:45 p.m., Gregor said.
The pilot did not issue a mayday alert, Gregor said.
The Honolulu Fire Department then received a call from hikers on the Wiliwilinui Trail who said they heard a crash and saw flames in an area near Lanipo.
HFD's Air 1 rescue helicopter and a ground crew made up of police and fire rescue workers searched an area between Wai'alae Iki Ridge and Lanipo Ridge but were hampered by cloud cover and intermittent rain.
Roughly three hours later, the plane's wreckage was finally spotted on the steep eastern face of a ridge about 60 feet west of the trail, at an elevation about 1,900 feet.
"Due to the condition of the wreckage it was obvious that no one would be able to survive the crash," Capt. Robert Main said in a statement. "Some photos were taken of the scene for investigation purposes by rescue personnel, but due to precarious location and the coming darkness the remains were not recovered."
Honolulu police secured the trail overnight.
Both the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the crash, with FAA investigators and Honolulu firefighters combing the scene today.
A hiker exiting the Lanipo Trail said she heard the plane's engine having difficulty before the crash.
"It sounded like a backfire," said the hiker, who asked not to be identified.
Another hiker, who also asked not to be identified, said she saw "big flames" followed by popping sounds.
The hikers said the crash occurred when cloud cover yesterday was at its worst. The National Weather Service said there were clouds and rain over O'ahu from a passing cold front.
Ryan Gamurot, a pilot who works at Flight School Hawai'i, said the crash site intersects a much-used approach and departure path that extends from Koko Head along the path of the H-1 Freeway to Honolulu International Airport.
Without speculating on the cause of yesterday's crash, Gamurot said cloudy conditions can be especially challenging to pilots.
"Flight instructors are trained to fly in those conditions, but it can be a problem if you're less-experienced," Gamurot said. "You can easily get disoriented if you can't see what's outside your window."
Recreational pilot Adam Tolentino frequently saw Nicholas Palumbo at the airport and said Palumbo flew to Läna'i and back almost every weekend.
In addition to his feline practice on O'ahu, Palumbo also operates a small-animal practice in Läna'i City.
Martha Rice, a friend and client, said the Palumbos also have a home on Läna'i, and Nicholas frequently flies back and forth to Honolulu.
As veterinarians, the Palumbos took Rice's cats home to care for them when they needed serious medical treatment.
"They go way beyond the call of duty," Rice said. "They get to be friends. They're not just professionals. They're wonderful people who have seen us through some very difficult times."