An Air Force B1 bomber pilot and his wife died Wednesday when a small plane approaching the Colorado Springs Airport slammed into the ground and burst into flames.
The crash just after noon shut down the airport for almost two hours, leaving stranded passengers to board buses en route to Denver International Airport to catch connecting flights.
John McGinley, assistant director of airport operations and maintenance, did not identify the pilot and passenger aboard the single-engine, four-seat Mooney M-20 aircraft.
Will Richardson, a friend who was with the pilot’s family at their home in Little Rock, Ark., identified the two as Air Force pilot Martin Anthony Riggan and his wife, Nicole, of Rapid City, S.D.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, Riggan was the registered owner of the plane.
He had flown planes since high school, enrolled at the Air Force Academy and graduated from there in 2007, Richardson said.
“(Riggan) always had a dream to be in the Air Force,” Richardson said.
He moved with Nicole over the summer to Rapid City after being assigned to Ellsworth Air Force Base, Richardson said.
While Anthony worked at the base, Nicole thrived in the city’s theater scene.
A graduate of the University of Northern Colorado with degrees in acting and secondary education theater, she directed her first play within months of arriving in the city, according to the Rapid City Journal.
Her first production was “Little Red and the Riding Hoods,” a unique take on the old fairy tale that featured motorcycles, in homage to the city’s biker culture, the newspaper reported.
“She was bubbly, looking forward to Christmas,” said Dennis Gleason, the managing artistic director of the theater, who saw her Tuesday night during an hour-and-a-half rehearsal. “She trusted people, and it usually paid off in the end.”
When leaving the city, the couple often chose to fly in “his little Moody,” said Anthony Riggan’s great aunt, Pat Riggan. They flew the small plane back to Arkansas at Thanksgiving to visit his family.
“He was everybody’s darling,” Pat Riggan said. “You just have to believe that God has a better plan and we’re not aware of it yet.”
The plane left Rapid City Regional Airport at 9:18 a.m. Wednesday, and its destination was Colorado Springs, according to the activity log on the website flightaware.com.
McGinley said the FAA notified the Colorado Springs Airport that it had lost contact with the aircraft at 12:01 p.m. Minutes later, witnesses reported a plane had crashed near the airport.
“We don’t have a lot of information yet,” said Allen Kenitzer, spokesman for the FAA’s regional office in Renton, Wash. “The airplane apparently crashed under unknown circumstances after missing an approach into Colorado Springs.”
A National Transportation Safety Board team arrived in Colorado Springs on Wednesday to investigate the crash.
Kenitzer said the plane was on instrument approach when it disappeared from radar.
At the time of the crash, visibility at the airport was limited to less than a quarter mile because of fog, the lowest value that such weather stations can report, said Randy Gray, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Pueblo.
The ceiling, which measures how far someone can see vertically, was at 100 feet, also the lowest reportable value.
McGinley would not say if pilots were advised of the poor visibility before the crash.
All arriving and departing flights were halted immediately after the crash.
Travelers whose flights were delayed or cancelled were bused to Denver International Airport to make connecting flights.
Gazette writers John Ensslin and Matt Steiner contributed to this report.