LUZERNE COUNTY, Penn. (NewsNation Now) — A small plane that was due to take part in an upcoming air show crashed shortly after takeoff Friday at an airport in eastern Pennsylvania, killing the pilot.
The crash at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport occurred around 12:35 p.m., authorities said. The pilot was identified as Andy Travnicek of Hampton, New Hampshire. The 50-year-old commercial airline pilot and U.S. Air Force veteran was the only person on board, and there were no injuries on the ground.
Officials said the crash happened moments after one of the planes left the runway.
The plane was heading north when it suddenly veered to the left “for reasons unknown,” crashed into the grass and caught fire, said the airport director, Carl Beardsley.
Travnicek was the pilot of Geico Skytyper plane number three. His team members say he was a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, served in the military, and was also a commercial airline pilot.
The team was practicing for the Great Pocono Raceway Airshow in eastern Pennsylvania.
“I mean, literally, the flames went sky-high,” eyewitness Carol Paupst told NewsNation affiliate WBRE.
Paupst witnessed the fiery crash from afar.
“I watched two go off, and then two go off, and then the last two go off. And so I said, ‘when these go off, they’re going to go up in the air’. And as soon as I said that, it crashed,” Paupst said.
“We heard the jets flying over, and we came outside, so we wanted to see the jets flying over, and then we look over, and we saw the big cloud of smoke,” eyewitness Katie Bonitz of Avoca said.
Bonitz lives a short distance from the airport. She says it was a sight she never imagined seeing, let alone from her backyard.
“Prayers to the pilot and his family,” Bonitz said.
The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team offered a “toast” to the fallen pilot on its Facebook page, saying Travnicek was a graduate of the Air Force Academy and a former C-5 Galaxy cargo plane pilot. He also flew other types of aircraft.
“He was a phenomenal pilot and friend,” the Thunderbirds said.
Travnicek, a native of Southbridge, Massachusetts, completed military deployments in Spain, Qatar, and Afghanistan and was a staff member at the academy.
“He enjoyed flying warbirds to honor the men and women of all eras and all branches of the U.S. military,” the Skytypers said.
The Great Pocono Raceway Airshow is still on for Saturday and Sunday, but raceway officials said the Geico Skytypers are no longer part of the show.
The FAA and the NTSB are working to determine what led to the fatal plane crash.
It was the second fatal Skytypers crash since 2018. That year, a vintage Skytypers plane went down in a wooded area in Melville, New York, killing the pilot.
The Long Island, New York-based Skytypers create aerial smoke messages and perform maneuvers using North American SNJ-2 World War II aircraft.
NewsNation affiliate WBRE and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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