PURCHASE, N.Y — A son of the oldest living member of the Rockefeller family died Friday after the small plane he was piloting crashed into a neighborhood near Westchester County Airport.
Richard Rockefeller, 64, of Falmouth, Maine, ate dinner the night before with his father, David Rockefeller, to celebrate the scion's 99th birthday, said family spokesman Fraser Seitel, who confirmed the death. The family's estate is in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., along the Hudson River.
"It's a terrible tragedy," Seitel said. "The family is in shock. Richard was a wonderful and cherished member of the family. He was an experienced pilot. He was a medical doctor, and it's horribly sad."
The plane, a Piper Meridian single-engine turbo prop registered to Richard Rockefeller, left the White Plains, N.Y., airport about 8 a.m. ET and was reported down within 10 minutes in a residential area less than 3 miles away in Purchase, about 30 miles north of New York City, said Peter Scherrer, airport operations administrator. The weather at the time of takeoff was foggy and rainy.
The plane was scheduled to fly to Portland, Maine, and the flight was expected to last an hour and 14 minutes. Richard Rockefeller had flown to this area Thursday, according to FlightAware flight tracking service, leaving Portland International Jetport at 2:22 p.m. and arriving at Westchester County Airport at 3:41 p.m.
Richard Rockefeller flew out of the airport regularly, Scherrer said. No other injuries were reported and no one else was on the plane.
Weather could have contributed to the crash, pilots said.
Friday morning's low cloud ceiling would have made recovery from a problem difficult, said Rocco Cipriano, a board member of the Westchester Aviation Association. Procedures at Westchester County Airport require aircraft taking off from Runway 16 to climb 800 feet and turn right.
Judging from the wreckage, the plane appeared to have followed those procedures, said Scherrer, who indicated that Richard Rockefeller had not issued a "mayday" or radioed with any kind of problem.
Cipriano called the weather conditions less than ideal.
"If that engine quit and you're 1,000 feet in the air and you look out, you know what you're seeing? Nothing. You're seeing nothing but white," he said.
Wreckage from the plane was spread over several hundred feet and jet fuel was splattered over much of the crash site, said Harrison, N.Y.,'s fire chief, Anthony Marraccini.
"It was lucky there was no fire," he said. "There are some very large pine trees that could have ignited very easily."
A Piper Meridian is about 30 feet long, about 11 feet high with a 43-foot wingspan and carries 170 gallons of fuel. It costs at least $2.2 million and seats six, including the pilot.
In 2012, the most recent year available, general aviation aircraft, which includes all flights except passenger airlines, were involved in 1,471 accidents; 271 were fatal and 432 people were killed, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. That was a rate of almost 2 fatalities and 6.8 accidents per 100,000 flying hours.
Commercial scheduled airlines are far safer; they had 27 accidents in 2012 but no fatalities, an accident rate almost 44 times lower than general aviation, the agency's numbers show.
Representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration and the NTSB will lead the crash investigation, Westchester County officials said. Flights resumed at the White Plains airport about an hour after the crash.
Richard Rockefeller was a family physician in Falmouth until 2000 and had worked on global health issues. He served as president of the nonprofit Health Commons Institute and chairman of the U.S. Advisory Board of Doctors Without Borders, according to the Rockefeller Brothers Trust Fund website.
He was a great grandson of oilman John D. Rockefeller, who helped found Standard Oil in 1870. His father, David Rockefeller, is John D. Rockefeller's last surviving grandson, and he is David Rockefeller's youngest son.
Richard Rockefeller's wife, two adult children, a brother and four sisters survive him.