SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The fragmented pieces of a small airplane that collided with a South Dakota wind turbine will be taken to Colorado so investigators can try to determine why the pilot was flying so low and how the aircraft went down.
The single-engine Piper crashed Sunday evening in fog 10 miles south of Highmore, killing the pilot and three cattlemen returning from a sale in Texas of live cattle and embryos.
Possible factors to be investigated include trouble with the pilot or plane and weather, said Jennifer Rodi, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator who spent Tuesday on the scene.
"It definitely appears the airplane dropped the turbine blade in some manner. But until I can put the pieces of the wreckage together, it will be hard to say whether it was a front-on impact or if the blade came down on the plane," she said.
The debris field is in a circle with the damaged wind turbine in the center and parts of the plane scattered for several hundred feet in all directions, she said.
"I would describe the wreckage as fragmented," Rodi said, adding that it will be removed by Wednesday.
It's not known if the pilot filed a flight plan but he was not communicating with air traffic controllers at the time of the crash, she said.
The pilot, Donald J. "D.J." Fischer, 30, of Gettysburg, owned the plane. Also killed were cattlemen Brent Beitelspacher, 37, of Bowdle, and Logan Rau, 25, of Java, and Nick Reimann, 33, of Ree Heights.
Mike Mimms, a veterinarian who runs the annual sale in Hereford, said Reimann had been down for the show multiple times and is known across the industry as a master in livestock genetics.
"He was honestly the number one guy in this business and one that people trusted," he said of Reimann. "He kind of a was a trendsetter that people wanted to know what he was doing and they tended to follow suit."
Mimms said much of Reimann's herd originated from the Beitelspacher family's herd.
Beitelspacher's mother, Carla Beitelspacher, told the Pierre Capital Journal that her son loved hunting, tournament fishing and being outdoors. He was a loving husband and father who almost always had a smile on his face, she said.
"He was very energetic," Carla Beitelspacher said. "He was ready to capture the world."
Rau, who had two pregnant cows consigned to the sale, loved his family, hunting, ice fishing, the Kansas City Chiefs and treated his three dogs like children, said his sister, TiAnn Poloncic.
Poloncic told the Capital Journal that her brother was halfway through a paramedic program at Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown when he made choice to head back to the family farm and run the operation with his father, Todd Rau.
"He was living the American dream," she said. "He was a tough farmer but he had a soft heart. He loved what he did."
Fischer, a crop sprayer for Air Kraft Spraying Inc., attended South Dakota State University and played defensive tackle for the school's football team from 2002-2005. Fischer's college coach, John Stiegelmeier, described him as a gifted athlete who was a great friend to his teammates.
The wreckage was found Monday at the South Dakota Wind Energy Center, a site south of Highmore with 27 turbines that are about 213 feet tall, plus the length of the blade.
The National Weather Service said fog and low clouds combined for reduced visibility in the Highmore area on Sunday night, and winds were out of the east at about 15 to 25 mph.
Rodi said the ultimate destination of the flight was Gettysburg, where the pilot lived, but he had picked up a passenger in Highmore on the way to Texas.
Highmore is less than 800 miles from Hereford, which falls within the maximum range of a Piper. However, factors such as how much fuel was in the plane when it left and head winds contribute to range, so that will also be part of the investigation, she said.
Rodi said that to her knowledge the plane did not stop to refuel, though that will be part of the investigation.
Fischer was certified to fly with instruments only but she didn't know if he was current on that rating, she added.