Bodies of pilot, son recovered from Hawaii plane wreckage
• Photo gallery: Remains recovered from plane crash site
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
The well-known veterinarian whose Piper single-engine aircraft slammed into a steep ridge near Ka'au Crater in East Honolulu was a "confident," experienced pilot who took the same route from Lāna'i every weekend that he was following Sunday, a family member said.
The fiery crash killed the 81-year-old pilot and his 20-year-old son.
Honolulu firefighters recovered the bodies of Nicholas Palumbo and his youngest son, Timmy, before 1 p.m. yesterday, after spending hours tackling difficult conditions — from steep terrain to thick vegetation — to get to the crash site, secure the wreckage and find the bodies. Nicholas Palumbo was found first, and crews found the body of his son outside the aircraft.
Capt. Terry Seelig, HFD spokesman, said there were serious concerns about the stability of the wreckage on the ridge, and so crews secured it with ropes so it wouldn't slip farther down the mountainside, potentially injuring a firefighter attempting to recover a body.
"The site of the crash is on a steep flank of the ridgeline," he said.
The crash site is below Lanipō Trail. To get there, firefighters rappelled from a helicopter, then hiked along the trail. The plane crashed at an elevation of about 1,900 feet.
"The difficulty is in the location," Seelig said.
The site of the crash also hampered recovery efforts Sunday, and eventually fire crews attempting to hike to the wreckage had to turn around. The crash of the 1969, six-seater Piper Cherokee aircraft happened about 2 p.m. Sunday in low cloud cover and during a light rain.
It's still unclear what happened in the minutes leading up to the crash — and what went wrong, authorities said. When the plane hit the mountainside, it erupted in flames and charred portions of the ridge.
Seelig said the plane broke apart on impact, but was in fairly large pieces.
The NTSB will arrive in Honolulu today to investigate.
Family spokeswoman Julie Moody said yesterday Nicholas Palumbo took the route near Ka'au Crater countless times and was an "extremely confident, extremely competent pilot."
She said Palumbo had been flying since he was 19.
Palumbo was last re-certified by the FAA in June 2009, and his pilot's license expires in 2011.
Moody said Palumbo flew the route near the crash site almost every weekend on his way from Lāna'i, where he had a home, to Honolulu, where he operated the Cat Clinic on Kapahulu Avenue with his wife. Pilots have said the route Palumbo took is widely used.
Moody said she couldn't speculate about what may have caused the crash.
Visibility was poor — with low cloud cover and drizzly skies — when the crash happened.
"The Palumbo family suffered a devastating loss," Moody said yesterday, speaking to reporters at Wai'alae Iki Park, where the family gathered to get news on the recovery effort and see the bodies when they were brought in by helicopter. They are in a "state of shock," she said.
Nicholas Palumbo was a fixture in Honolulu and Lāna'i veterinarian circles.
His son, Timmy, graduated from Kalani High School and remained in a program there.
Those who know the area where the plane crashed described the terrain as difficult.
"It's not a good place to be when the clouds are coming in," said helicopter pilot Jeff Gebhard, who shot photos of the crash site yesterday. Gebhard added there was a "low ceiling" Sunday, and added if Palumbo was flying 60 feet higher, he may have cleared the ridge.
Mabel Kekina, who is chairwoman of the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club's trail maintenance crew, hikes Lanipō Trail once a year and said that the area provides all sorts of environmental challenges — from ridges with heavy vegetation to high winds and thick clouds.
"It's a very hard place to get to," she said.
Authorities could not immediately say when the last fatal airplane crash happened on a Honolulu ridgeline, relatively close to well-populated areas.