NAPLES — Benjamin Arthur Simpson Sr. lived to fly.
And when the 74-year-old Naples Civil Air Patrol member wasn’t flying, there was a good chance he was chatting someone’s ear off about flying.
“He loved to fly and he loved to talk about it,” said Richard Gentil, owner of the Naples Air Center. “He would come in even if he wasn’t flying. He would stop by to say hello.”
So it was no surprise that on Wednesday night Simpson, a recent widower, was in the air piloting the single-engine Cessna 172 he rented from the center, where he was a regular.
Authorities say that around 7:40 p.m., while flying south in the pitch black sky towards Goodland, Simpson crashed in a mud flat just off of Coon Key. He was killed in the wreck.
Goodland residents who live near the crash site reported hearing a loud whining noise followed by an explosion on Wednesday night. Daylight revealed the twisted and mangled remains of the Cessna near a forest of mangroves.
On Thursday, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration descended on Collier County in an attempt to solve the mystery of why Simpon’s plane crashed.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Luke Schiada, a senior investigator for the safety board, said they are at the beginning stages of an investigation that could take months.
A preliminary report is expected by the end of next week, Schiada said. A factual report will take six to eight months.
“We’re trying to gather as much factual information as we can without drawing conclusions at this point,” Schiada said.
It is unclear what time Simpson took off Wednesday night or where he was going, but it appears his trip started at the Naples Municipal Airport, said Ted Soliday, executive director of the Naples Airport Authority.
“We’re pretty confident it was from our airport, yes,” Soliday said. “I don’t know that it didn’t go to another airport in between.”
Schiada wouldn’t speculate on why the plane went down, but he said it is being investigated as an accident.
“At this point I’m not aware of any distress signal,” he said.
Investigators were going to start removing the wreckage Friday, Schiada said.
“Part of the aircraft is in the mud,” he said. “Part of the aircraft we can’t even see.”
Simpson fueled up the Cessna at the Naples airport earlier in the day, Soliday said. A sample has been taken from the truck that fueled the plane to test for contamination, he said.
The truck has been pulled out of service.
“Anytime an aircraft goes down from our airport or we maybe had fuel contact, we check it very carefully,” Soliday said.
Simpson, a native of Washington D.C., has lived in the Naples area since 1998, his son-in-law Ben Shupe said by e-mail in a family statement. He has been flying airplanes for 40 years.
Before moving to Naples, Simpson owned a Washington D.C. gas station near the U.S. Capitol, family members said. He was also a professional musician who once played with Patsy Cline.
Simpson has a son, two daughters and two grandchildren who live in other states, family members said. Though his wife, Anna Marie, died recently, friends and relatives said he was doing well and still enjoyed going to church and playing music at local nursing homes.
Simpson recently sang Christmas tunes and played guitar at the Naples Civil Air Patrol’s Christmas party on Friday, said Robert Berlam, the commander of the patrol.
“It was his smile, his personality. He made the party more than going to dinner at the country club,” Berlam said.
At the party Simpson talked to Berlam about planning a St. Patrick’s Day party in March.
“He was thinking ahead, and we’re pleased to say that,” Berlam said.
Gentil said Simpson had been a regular at his business since 2003. He described Simpson as the “nicest guy you could ever meet” and “really a gentleman.”
“If you knew him, you know it was an accident,” Gentil said. “It was absolutely an accident.”
The Cessna 172 is one of the best-selling single-engine airplanes in the world and has been produced since the 1950s, said Al Russo, a flight instructor at the Naples-based RexAir Flight & Maintenance Center.
“The people who fly them will tell you it’s very forgiving,” Russo said of the Cessna. “It wants to fly. It doesn’t want to spin.”
Something catastrophic would have had to have happened to Simpson’s plane for it to crash the way it did, Russo said, a scenario he said is highly unlikely. He said he doubts the crash is due to an airplane malfunction.
“We’re trained to respond to engine failure from day one,” Russo said.
Because of the pitch black sky, Gentil pointed to spatial disorientation — the lack of a reference that tells the pilot up from down — as a possible cause of the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board cited spatial disorientation as a possible trigger for the crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1999.
“It’s pretty obvious what happened on this one,” Gentil said.