Pilot of downed plane hit bad weather

3 friends killed were on way home from Carolina golf outing

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The pilot of a doomed plane that crashed Sunday night in a rugged stretch of West Virginia's eastern panhandle, killing all three Western Pennsylvanians aboard, reported hitting bad weather shortly before the aircraft disappeared from radar.

Authorities said three witnesses told searchers Tuesday that they heard a noise that sounded like a plane going into a dive in Hardy County along the border with Virginia.

That information allowed emergency personnel to pinpoint an area to scour. After more than 200 searchers were hampered for several days by rain, fog and challenging terrain, a member of the Civil Air Patrol finally glimpsed the wreckage Thursday evening from the air.

On Friday authorities confirmed the identities of the dead as pilot Michael F. Garrone, 52, a contractor from Allegheny Township; Charles "Chas" Armitage Jr., 52, president of Vandergrift-based Uncle Charley's Sausage; and his girlfriend, Laura Stettmier, 49, co-owner of Addison House Restaurant & Lounge in Leechburg.

Arlene Salac, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the pilot had been in contact Sunday with an air traffic control center in Leesburg, Va., but lost communications 11 miles southeast of Grant County Airport in West Virginia.

"He was going fine. He was flying VFR [visual flight rules]. That's not atypical for somebody to run into weather and say he was going to go back to where he departed from," Ms. Salac said.

"There was some precipitation north of his last known position," said Civil Air Patrol Col. Rodney Moore.

He described a difficult and extensive search conducted for the plane and the challenges posed by the inclement weather and mountains.

"The terrain at the last known position there was very, very rough, steep, precipitous and heavily wooded as well," Col. Moore said.

By Friday afternoon an investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board had arrived at the remote scene, said to be at least a half-mile from the nearest county road.

Mr. Garrone's mother declined an interview, saying family members had just returned from West Virginia and that it would be several days before the bodies would be released by authorities. Another son, David Garrone, participated in the search.

"He's a good businessman and a good pilot, great brother, uncle, dad," David Garrone said.

Information was confusing about Mr. Garrone's pilot experience. FAA records show that he received his pilot's license just over a month ago, on Aug. 31.

But David Garrone said their father had owned a plane and taught both boys to fly from about age 11.

"It's not like he was a rookie pilot," Mr. Garrone said. He declined further comment.

Frank Catanzano, a spokesman for Uncle Charley's Sausage, said the group had gone to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for a golfing vacation. They left Sunday and stopped briefly in Danville, Va., a little after 7 p.m.

Michael Rembold, owner of General Aviation Inc. at Danville Regional Airport, said Michael Garrone's wife had been on board but got off because she had business in Danville.

Mr. Rembold said he overheard a conversation between Mr. Garrone and his wife that proved ominous.

"The weather was gonna be bad going up that way and she just wanted them to stay a night. That was about it," Mr. Rembold said.

At the time there were reports of dicey weather -- freezing rain and the chance for wings to ice up at 5,000 feet altitude -- between Virginia and Pennsylvania, according to Mr. Rembold.

Data from the National Weather Service's nearest location to the crash site at Grant County Airport indicated 46-degree temperatures, calm winds at ground level and no precipitation, although rain had come through earlier in the evening around 7 p.m.

Mr. Rembold said he did not hear the rest of the couple's conversation. But after about a half-hour, Mr. Garrone and his two passengers returned to the plane and took off, apparently for Johnstown, though it is unclear if that was their intended final destination.

Around 8:30 p.m., according to West Virginia authorities, Mr. Garrone's plane dropped out of radio communication and vanished from radar.

Friends and family members of the group were shocked and saddened.

"Anybody knows any of them knows they were all good people, big-hearted and caring, had a lot of friends. The three of the victims themselves were great friends. They were just having a weekend doing what they loved to do," said Josh Spiering, Ms. Stettmier's business partner and a friend for 15 years.

Dana Audo, Ms. Stettmier's brother, said that his sister had "a real zest for life and adventure."

He said that his sister was very proud of Addison House, the restaurant she co-owned, which is a popular gathering spot in Leechburg.

"You have to wait in line to go there," he said. "It was an old home that she and her business partner renovated and brought it back to life, and it did very well."

She had two older brothers and a younger sister and was "an extremely caring mother" to her 22-year-old son, George. She had graduated from Highlands High School.

Ms. Stettmier and Mr. Armitage met through their businesses, Mr. Audo said. Addison House served the sausages provided by Uncle Charley's Sausage.

Mr. Spiering said it was the couple's first time in a plane with Mr. Garrone. He added that Mr. Garrone had just bought the plane this past summer. It is registered to an aviation company owned by Mr. Garrone called Wings R Us.

Mr. Armitage, of Parks, became president in 2005 of the 45-employee sausage company his father founded in 1988.

"He was an ethical, highly motivated business owner, committed to growing the company, to treating his employees right," Mr. Catanzano said. "He and I and Laura would golf together."

Mr. Armitage is survived by his father, Charles S. Armitage Sr., his mother, Frances, brother Jon of Cranberry, and sisters Charla Rae of North Jefferson, N.C., and Julie of Hudson, Ohio.

Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962. Faith Cotter contributed to this report.


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