Merion air disaster

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Merion air disaster
Date April 4, 1991 (1991-04-04)
Summary Pilot error; failure to maintain safe distance between aircraft
Site Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania
40°00′06″N 75°15′25″W / 40.001691°N 75.2568478°W / 40.001691; -75.2568478Coordinates: 40°00′06″N 75°15′25″W / 40.001691°N 75.2568478°W / 40.001691; -75.2568478
Total fatalities 7
First aircraft
N104RM 1980 Piper AEROSTAR 601P C-N 61P07568063375 (5406371767).jpg
Similar to the Aerostar involved
Type Piper Aerostar
Registration N3645D
Flight origin Williamsport Regional Airport
Destination Northeast Philadelphia Airport
Passengers 1
Crew 2
Fatalities 3
Second aircraft
Hokkaido Police Bell412EP DAISETSU2.JPG
A Bell 412EP type involved in accident
Type Bell 412
Registration N78S
Crew 2
Fatalities 2
Ground casualties
Ground fatalities 2
Ground injuries 5[1]

On April 4, 1991, a Piper Aerostar propeller-driven aircraft collided in mid-air with a Bell 412 helicopter over Merion Elementary School in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania. All five people in both aircraft were killed including United States Senator John Heinz, the sole passenger of the Piper. Two school children on the ground were also killed by falling debris.

An investigation discovered the cause of the accident to be poor judgment and pilot error of the crews from both aircraft.


Northeast Philadelphia Airport; destination of Heinz Piper Aerostar

Heinz's Piper departed from Williamsport Regional Airport in Central Pennsylvania at about 11:25 a.m. Heinz was in Williamsport for a press conference pertaining to funding of U.S. Route 15. His press conference lasted about two and a half hours the morning of April 4. Heinz rented the twin-engine Piper Aerostar from Lycoming Air based at the Williamsport airport, Heinz and his two pilots, both from Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, departed for Philadelphia just before 11:30 a.m.


As Heinz's aircraft neared Philadelphia, on final approach to Northeast Philadelphia Airport, pilot Richard Shreck noticed that the nose landing gear locked indicator was not illuminated. Shreck executed a missed approach and entered a holding pattern north of the airport. The two pilots began troubleshooting the problem and alerted air traffic control. A Sun Oil Company Bell 412 helicopter was dispatched to identify if the gear was indeed down and locked.

The crew of the Bell 412 couldn't identify the condition of the landing gear from a safe distance so moved closer for a better look. The two aircraft collided over Merion Elementary in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, with the helicopter's rotor clipping the left wing and fin of the Aerostar. The helicopter spun out of control and the Aerostar dived to the ground, disintegrating on impact in the elementary school grounds. Two schoolgirls were killed and five others injured by the debris, which fell in a two hundred-fifty yard radius around the school and surrounding area.[2][3][4]

One boy was set ablaze from a shower of fuel from the helicopter and survived despite burns to 80 percent of his body.


Piper Aerostar:

John Heinz
aged 52 passenger
Trond Stegen
aged 31 pilot
Richard Shreck
aged 30 co-pilot

Bell 412:

Charles J. Burke
aged 42 pilot
Michael Pozzano
aged 43 co-pilot/spotter

School children:

Rachel Tillie Blum
aged 6
Lauren Nicole Freundlich
aged 7

Investigation and legal proceedings


An NTSB and FAA Investigation was opened almost immediately. In 1992, the National Transportation Safety Board's finding were announced. It was determined that the “appallingly poor judgment” of both flight crews caused the accident. The report later claimed that visual checks of the aircraft from the helicopter were pointless because it is impossible to see into the nose-wheel well of an Aerostar from a helicopter to check whether the nose-gear is locked.

The board’s investigators recited a long litany of the mistakes and wrong decisions that led to the deaths and injuries. “This was a senseless accident that didn’t have to happen,” said James L. Kolstad, chairman of the five-member National Transportation Safety Board at the time.

The official description of the accident as released by both the NTSB and FAA conclude that the incident was caused by poor judgment and pilot error of crews on the Aerostar and Bell helicopter. The helicopter crews actions were pointless as the crew would have been unable to appropriately determine the condition of the nose-wheel of the Aerostar from a helicopter. And the Aerostar should have made an emergency landing attempt at Northeast Airport.

The accident caused a change in procedure at many airports as helicopters were not to be used to determine landing gear failure. Aircraft should just fly a low pass or buzz the airport for visual confirmation from services on the ground.[5]

Legal proceedings

The wives of the two helicopter pilots split a $5 million settlement, mostly to those killed and injured on the ground and damage to the school's property. More than a dozen lawsuits followed the crash, most settled out of court. All of the four pilots families involved reached settlements with victims for an undisclosed amount.



“No one could have stopped this from happening. It was an act of God.”

Rebecca Rutenberg, "Remembering the John Heinz Tragedy, Twenty-Five Years Later"

News of Heinz's death shocked fellow lawmakers. Sen. Timothy E. Wirth, saying that he and his wife, Wren, considered Heinz and his wife, Teresa, "our dearest friends in the Senate," paid tribute to his "intense intelligence, sparkling charm and broad vision."

  • Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole called Heinz "a dynamic and dedicated public servant, a tireless champion for Pennsylvania and a good and decent family man."
  • Vice President Dan Quayle, in Los Angeles for a speech, said that "we are going to miss John Heinz tremendously. He made a tremendous contribution to the U.S. Senate."

Word of Heinz's death came from his Washington office. At midafternoon, sobbing members of his staff began walking out of his office in the Russell Senate Office Building. A few minutes later, the senator's legislative director, Richard Bryers, announced Heinz's death to reporters.

Media attention

The crash received multi-national attention making papers and news channels stories in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada and Australia.

However some in the local community questioned some outlets in dealing of the crash. One local man said "I know a politician died and that's sad, but isn't the national media forgetting that two little girls were murdered while playing at recess."[citation needed] Some outlets failed to express these deaths in reports and later apologized.

No fly zone

A U.S. Army operation out of Fort Dix, N.J., was caught filming a commercial with aircraft near Merion Elementary shortly after the accident. Complaints followed. An informal ban on flights in Lower Merion during school hours lasted for a while. Even the media agreed not to fly traffic or news helicopters above the school.[6]


  1. ^ "Senator Heinz and 6 Others Killed In Midair Crash Near Philadelphia". New York Times. 5 April 1991. Retrieved 8 October 2017.
  2. ^ "Sen. John Heinz killed in plane crash in Philadelphia". Baltimore Sun.
  3. ^ "U.S. Sen. H. John Heinz III was among the dead in plane crash 25 yrs ago".
  4. ^ "Plane crashes involving major US political figures".
  5. ^ "A twin-engine plane carrying Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) collided with a helicopter over a Philadelphia suburb yesterday, killing Heinz and six others, including two first-graders playing..." Washington Post. 5 April 1991.
  6. ^ "Remembering the John Heinz Tragedy, Twenty-Five Years Later". Mainline Today. 4 April 1991.
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