Steamboat Springs Hans Vandervlugt was only 14 when he first took to the skies, piloting gliders over his native Holland. After that first taste of altitude, he went on to pilot aircraft for more than six decades.
“That was his passion, that was his passion,” Ruth Vandervlugt said Monday about Hans, her husband of 40 years. He died Sunday when the Cessna 414A he was attempting to land in Hayden crashed short of the runway at Yampa Valley Regional Airport. A snow squall was passing through the area at the time of the crash and had reduced visibility near the airport to about zero, officials said.
“He was a very outstanding person, a very personable person, and everybody liked him,” Ruth Vandervlugt said.
On Sunday, Hans Vandervlugt, 75, was flying Scott and Gaby Humpal and their three children from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Steamboat Springs for a ski vacation. The crash also killed Gaby Humpal. Scott Humpal and sons Tad, 18, and Dillon, 13, were hurt in the crash and listed in fair condition at Yampa Valley Medical Center on Monday. Daughter Sara Humpal, 10, suffered more serious injuries and was flown in critical condition Monday to Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora.
Ruth Vandervlugt said she was tracking the plane owned by Scott Humpal from her and Hans’ hometown of Refugio, Texas, on www.flightaware.com. She called YVRA when she noticed it didn’t land.
“It was just so devastating,” she said.
A sudden squall
Yampa Valley Regional Airport officials said Monday the weather changed dramatically in the minutes before the plane crashed in a field of knee-deep snow about 30 to 40 yards short of the runway.
Airport Manager Dave Ruppel said two Pilatus PC-12s took off from the airport en route to Casper, Wyo., about 20 minutes before Sunday’s 3:28 p.m. crash. Those pilots reported visibility of 10 miles at the time.
But a snow squall quickly reduced visibility at the airport west of Steamboat to less than a quarter of a mile as the Cessna 414A neared the runway.
“Sunday’s storm seemed to have bands,” Ruppel said. “At the time of the crash it was one of those bands that comes through where visibility goes down to nothing.”
Ruppel said the visibility at the airport improved soon after the crash.
As is standard procedure for pilots approaching YVRA, Vandervlugt contacted the airport’s Unicom communications facility when he was 10 miles from the runway in Hayden. Ruppel said the pilot was briefed on altimeter and weather readings and was likely told visibility at the airport was less than a quarter of a mile. Still, Ruppel said it’s common for pilots to proceed with the approach.
“It’s up to the pilot to make the decision to land,” Ruppel said.
He said air traffic controllers in Denver can clear the pilot for an approach, but when pilots reach an altitude of 450 feet and cannot see the runway, they often follow a missed approach procedure and delay the landing.
Quickly on scene
Firefighters stationed at the airport said they arrived at the wreckage and began tending to the deceased and the four injured passengers one minute after they received a 911 call from Scott Humpal.
The airport’s maintenance crews immediately plowed a path to the crash site to make it easier for ambulances to reach the survivors and take them from the scene.
“There was not a lot of damage to the plane, and there was no fire so it made our response much easier,” West Routt Fire Protection Chief Bryan Rickman said. “Our first concern was for the care of the patients, and we had very good access to them.”
Rickman said paramedics attempted to resuscitate Gaby Humpal, who rescuers said was sitting in the second row of seats on the right side of the aircraft at the time of the crash.
Rescuers said the survivors they found inside the plane complained about injuries ranging from neck pain to bone fractures.
Russell Hanks, a friend of the Humpal family and a co-director of one of the six physical therapy clinics Scott Humpal owns and operates in Texas, said by telephone that Sara Humpal was talking and able to move her arms and legs Monday. She was airlifted Monday morning to Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora after she underwent procedures at YVMC to fix leg fractures and to re-inflate her collapsed lungs. Hanks said Sara was expected to undergo another surgery sometime Monday to stabilize a fracture in her T6 to T9 vertebrae.
He described Sara as an avid tennis player. Hanks said a fellow physical therapist and the marketing director for Scott Humpal’s clinics flew to Denver on Monday to be with Sara.
“So far the family seems to be holding together as they deal with their significant loss,” Hanks said. “It’s a very subdued atmosphere here (at the office) today. We’re still open and seeing patients as we normally do, but everyone is shocked and devastated this happened. We’re making it, but it hasn’t been one of our better days.”
He said Scott Humpal had surgery on his ankle and was in stable condition Monday. Humpal’s sons did not require surgery for their injuries, Hanks said.
In a Facebook post at about 10 a.m. Monday, Scott Humpal confirmed Sara underwent surgery to fix two fractures in her leg. He said her collapsed lungs had re-inflated and that she has a subdural hematoma, a lacerated kidney and liver, a broken collarbone and an “unstable fracture” of the T6 vertebrae.
He also reported that his son Dillon has a lumbar compression fracture and “some cervical instability.” His son Tad was experiencing neck, back and ankle pain. Scott Humpal said he was suffering from back, neck and rib pain, as well as a sprained ankle and a broken ankle.
“We will have to stay in Steamboat until we are able to travel ... please pray for Sara’s recovery and Gaby’s soul ... thank you all for your concerns and messages,” he wrote.
Hanks said Gaby, like her daughter, was an avid tennis player who loved being active with her kids.
“The family is well loved,” Hanks said. “The community is feeling the loss.”
Ruppel said investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Hayden on Monday to begin their investigation. They photographed the crash scene and inspected the plane and its debris field as they begin to piece together the events that led to the crash. Ruppel said it could take many weeks for the NTSB to finalize and release its report.
Ruppel said investigators would continue examining the crash site Tuesday and may be able to offer a preliminary analysis of what led to the crash. An NTSB investigator did not immediately return phone messages seeking comment Monday.
YVRA was closed to all inbound and outbound air traffic Sunday afternoon and evening. The FAA cleared airport operations to continue at 7:15 a.m. Monday.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com