Investigators believe a twin-engine airplane was intentionally crashed onto a busy street in Connecticut, killing a student pilot, local police and a federal official said Wednesday.
The Piper PA 34 light aircraft went down Tuesday afternoon on Main Street in East Hartford near the front gate of Pratt & Whitney, a manufacturer of aircraft engines for both civil and military aviation, raising fears the crash was an act of terrorism.
The flight instructor, who survived the crash, told first responders and investigators he got into an altercation with the student pilot, which resulted in a struggle in the cockpit, a US official with direct knowledge of the investigation said.
The official said it appeared the student pilot was frustrated with his family and said he was being forced to become a pilot.
Illinois officials ID pilot
East Hartford police and federal authorities did not give the student pilot’s name, but on Wednesday night the mayor and police chief in Orland Hills, Illinois, called a news conference and identified him as Feras M. Freitekh, a Jordanian national with a student visa.
Orland Hills Mayor Kyle R. Hastings said identification papers on the student pilot listed his address as Orland Hills.
But police discovered Freitekh had never lived in Orland Hills and only used the address to receive mail, Orland Hills Police Chief Thomas Scully said.
The owner of the residence at the address knew Freitekh’s father and allowed the son to use the address to receive official mail, Scully said.
No recorders or video were on board the small plane, meaning there is no direct evidence to corroborate what the flight instructor said.
But based on initial interviews, authorities believe the instructor’s account is truthful and that the student pilot intentionally crashed the plane.
East Hartford police released few details at a Wednesday afternoon news conference, except to say the crash appeared to be intentional. They didn’t provide a motive.
“Information is indicating it was an intentional crash,” police Lt. Josh Litwin said at a news conference. “But the circumstances beyond it being intentional, or why it was intentional, or how it was intentional, are all being investigated at this time.”
The FBI, National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and Connecticut State Police are all investigating.
Local law enforcement called in the FBI, citing infrastructure concerns due to the crash’s proximity to Pratt & Whitney.
The NTSB tweeted that the FBI is now the lead investigator.
Although Orland Hills police are not investigating the crash, Scully said the case is now being investigated as a suicide.
Instructor in critical condition
The instructor, identified as Arian Prevalla, is in critical condition, Bridgeport Hospital spokesman John Cappiello said Wednesday.
Mark Poole, owner of Meriden Aviation Center and a former student of Prevalla’s, said Prevalla handles most of the area’s training of twin-engine aircraft.
Poole said Prevalla’s business model focused on international students obtaining visas and providing training for commercial airline pilots.
Law enforcement officials are trying to get a search warrant to investigate the student pilot’s computer. They also plan to interview his family.
The wreckage of the plane remained on Main Street in East Hartford on Wednesday. Litwin said the street might be cleared as early as late Wednesday.
A woman and her three daughters who were in a vehicle almost struck by the plane have been released from a local hospital, Litwin said.
Dual controls in the plane
Peter Goelz, former NTSB managing director, said the flight instructor could not have disabled the student pilot’s controls.
“In that kind of aircraft, the Piper 34, the Seneca, it’s simply a dual control aircraft, as most private planes are, and there’s no way to shut down … one side of the controls or the other,” Goelz said. “It’s simply in normal circumstances, one person is flying the plane and that’s it.”
If there were a struggle over the controls, it would have been “an impossible situation,” he said.
Goelz said he’d like to know if the decision to crash the plane was a spur-of-the-moment or a long-term decision, and whether somebody encouraged the student pilot to do it. Goelz also wondered if there were clues about the pilot’s psychological makeup.