Sources: Student Pilot Was Distraught, Fought With Instructor; Road Reopened
Traffic was once again flowing Thursday morning on Main Street, where the wreckage of a twin-engine plane that crashed yards from Pratt & Whitney property had been removed, but questions linger about the cause of the crash.
Also Thursday, a spokesman for Bridgeport Hospital said that Arian Prevalla, the flight instructor who suffered burns in the crash, was listed in fair condition.
A high-ranking local law enforcement official said Wednesday that the student pilot and instructor were arguing shortly before the crash, which killed the student and left the instructor injured.
Another source said the student pilot started flying the plane erratically and the instructor fought to gain control before the crash. The source said the student was distraught and feeling stressed over his poor performance at the flight academy.
A federal official told The Courant that the crash appears to have been a case of suicide, and that nothing had been found by Wednesday evening to suggest terrorism. The official said authorities expected to clear the crash scene Wednesday night, but that FBI agents in Chicago, where the father of the student pilot, Feras M. Freitekh, lived briefly in the city’s suburbs, were expected to continue to look into his background.
“Unfortunately, this looks, at this point, like an individual who wanted to end his life and used this event to do it,” the official said.
Freitekh, 28, was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash Tuesday afternoon. An initial search of a Hartford apartment where Freitekh was staying turned up no evidence of terrorism, a source said. But the FBI continued to search the apartment Wednesday and authorities were planning to inspect his electronic devices.
The National Transportation Safety Board said its initial investigation indicates the crash was intentional and that the FBI will lead the investigation.
The instructor is being treated at Bridgeport Hospital’s burn center and is talking with investigators. He was identified by sources as Arian Prevalla. He is the president of the American Flight Academy and managing member of the Hartford Jet Center, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Officials at the flight school based at Brainard Airport declined to comment Wednesday.
Authorities said they were trying to determine who had control of the plane at the time of the crash.
“Either of the two occupants at any time had the ability to take control of this plane,” said East Hartford police Lt. Joshua Litwin.
About 3:40 p.m. Tuesday, the Piper PA-34 Seneca struck a utility pole and wires on Main Street, knocking out power to the area, then crashed and was engulfed in flames, witnesses said. The twin-engine aircraft took off with a student and flight instructor at Hartford-Brainard Airport. No one else was aboard.
Public records show Freitekh address as being in Orland Hills, Ill. since April 2013. He has a license to fly a single-engine plane. Federal Aviation Administration records show he was issued a private pilot certificate on May 29, 2015. On his Facebook page he spells his name, Rafael Majdi Feritekh.
Freitekh only received mail at the Orland Hills address and had never lived there, Orland Hills Police Chief Tom Scully said at a news conference Wednesday evening, according to the Chicago Tribune. His father also had not been to the Orland Hills address, Scully said.
State and federal investigators also were at an apartment house on Annawan Street in Hartford late Tuesday and Wednesday, searching with dogs and wearing protective gear, the boyfriend of a resident of the three-building complex said. Sources said Freitekh was staying there and that investigators interviewed other flight students there.
Eric Bass, who lives nearby, said a number of apartments in the complex are occupied by students at the American Flight Academy. He said the students who lived there are from foreign countries, although he did not know where. He said four students lived in the building where his girlfriend lives. The complex was not evacuated during the police search.
Freitekh was staying at the apartment for at least five months, neighbors said.
Giselle Velazquez, one of his neighbors, said Freitekh was “very nice, polite, always smiling” and that he “always stopped to say hello.”
Another neighbor, Jessica Reyes, who lived in the same building as Freitekh, said he often cooked meals for her from his native Jordan and that he bought ice cream for neighborhood children.
A man from Amman who identified himself as a cousin of Freitekh’s, contacted through Facebook, said Freitekh’s dream was to become a pilot, and that’s why he came to the United States.
“He was a good person, kind and helpful,” said the cousin, who did not want to be identified by name. “He wasn’t religious at all. He was open-minded.”
Freitekh’s Facebook page is littered with photos showing his love of flying, including his profile picture that shows Freitekh kissing the nose of a plane. He also posted several pictures of the insides of cockpits and images with inspirational quotes related to flying, including “Born To Be A Pilot” and “Your wings already exist all you have to do is fly.”
Flight students also stay in an apartment on nearby Essex Street, which city records indicate is owned by Prevalla. A neighbor at 32 Essex St. said the owner of Unit E frequently rents to flight trainees at Brainard Airport, typically young men who stay for months at a time. The unit has so much turnover, she said, that an “unoccupied” label remains marked on the front door for that unit.
Two men had recently been living there, she said, though she didn’t have their names.
The woman who lives next door to the address listed for Freitekh in Illinois said there are two parents and four children living in the home. Neighbors said the family has lived there about eight to 10 years and keeps to themselves.
Mark Poole, an owner at Meriden Aviation Center, said that Prevalla managed the Meriden-Markham Airport for a couple years, but has not been involved in some time.
Poole said Prevalla was well known in the state’s flying community. Poole, himself, had earned his private pilot license from Connecticut Flight Academy, the precursor to the American Flight Academy. He said he did not receive lessons from Prevalla but had spoken to him a number of times.
Poole said Connecticut Flight Academy’s primary business was international students. “He puts that program together for them, including their housing and everything,” Poole said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy warned Wednesday that the public should not jump to conclusions about the reasons for the crash.
“As a nation, we have all had to adjust to a new reality,” Malloy told reporters at the Capitol. “When events such as this occur, we recognize that people almost automatically wonder if someone meant to do us harm. But we must exercise caution about jumping to conclusions before discovering and considering all of the facts.”
When asked if there is a no-fly zone over the Pratt & Whitney complex in East Hartford, Malloy said, “That’s a rather large site, so I hadn’t considered that — next to an international airport, as well as a local airport that has limited-size airplanes available to it.”
Regarding whether there is a need for increasing security across the state, Malloy said he was “not aware of any specific threats associated with this action.”
A Pratt & Whitney spokesman said Wednesday that the defense contractor was “assisting authorities as needed. We are unable to comment further since this is an active investigation.”
Pratt & Whitney workers arriving for work Wednesday said they were still shaken by the crash.
Gregory Bell saw the plane flying unusually low as he drove home from work. “I saw the plane going low,” he said. “It was too low.” By the time he got down the street, he heard the crash.
A minivan that stopped just short of colliding with the plane also remained on Main Street near the wreckage, its doors wide open. A woman and her three children who were in the vehicle were taken to the hospital and released Wednesday, said Litwin, the East Hartford police lieutenant. Police said the vehicle did not appear to have been hit by the plane.
John DeCarlo, a veteran Connecticut flight instructor who said he has no knowledge of what happened in the East Hartford crash, said that generally in a twin-engine Piper Seneca, the instructor and student sit side by side — the instructor on the right — and each has a yoke and rudder pedals. During a mechanical malfunction or any kind of trouble in the air, the instructor will say, “My airplane,” and the student is supposed to relinquish control immediately, DeCarlo said.
Altitude makes a big difference during any mid-air problems, he said. An instructor has more time to deal with trouble at 5,000 feet than at 1,000.
Courant staff writers Jenna Carlesso, Christopher Keating, Edmund H. Mahony, Kenneth Gosselin, Nicholas Rondinone, Matthew Kauffman and Jesse Leavenworth, Chicago Tribune reporter Angie Leventis Lourgos and Daily Southtown reporter Susan Lafferty contributed to this story.
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