LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Even at 82, former Oklahoma lawmaker Olin Branstetter never stopped flying, taking to the skies about 10 times a month alongside his wife Paula, a fellow pilot, and once traveling as far as the North Pole.
Why their plane — the same one their son Paul said they took to the North Pole in 1984 — fell out of the sky last week in central Arkansas remains a mystery. The couple died in the crash on Thursday, as did two Oklahoma State University basketball coaches whom they were ferrying to Little Rock for a recruiting trip.
So far, federal investigators have said weather didn't play a role in the crash near Perryville, Ark., about 45 miles northwest of Little Rock, where women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna planned to scout two prospective recruits. The sky was clear and winds were calm when witnesses described hearing the plane's engine sputter and watching the plane nosedive into the ground.
The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to release a preliminary report in the coming days, though it could take a year or longer to determine what caused the crash.
For now, it's not clear what role, if any, the ages of the plane and its owners played in the crash. Paula Branstetter would have turned 80 this Christmas. The single-engine plane was built in 1964.
Federal aviation restrictions limit the age of pilots who fly commercial jets carrying dozens or hundreds of passengers. But there's no age limit for pilots such as the Branstetters.
"The FAA doesn't really want to get in the business of saying: Joe Bag-Of-Doughnuts can't fly because he's 82 years old," said Todd Hubbard, who teaches aviation courses at Oklahoma State.
But practice — how often a pilot stretches his flying muscles — is important, Hubbard said.
"If you only drove one hour every 30 days in heavy traffic, you probably wouldn't do as well as if you were in heavy traffic every day and you got used to it, you knew what your reaction time was and what to be on the look for," Hubbard said.
He said the school will likely review its policy after this tragic crash — the second in 10 years involving members of OSU's basketball program.
After 10 people died in the 2001 crash, a new rule went into effect to require team aircraft to be powered by two or more turbine engines. But OSU spokesman Gary Shutt said the policy doesn't apply to recruiting trips for coaches, who were allowed to make travel arrangements at their own discretion.
Investigators are focusing on the airframe and the pilot, including his medical background and qualifications, along with possibly a lack of control of the plane. NTSB investigator Jason Aguilar has said there was no evidence that would question the pilot's qualifications to fly.
Pilots are required to undergo medical exams at least every two years. Olin Branstetter passed his exam, according to Federal Aviation Administration records. He also was certified to be a commercial pilot.
That's because he wanted "to educate himself to the toughest standards," Branstetter's son Paul said. "You have to know more stuff to be a commercial pilot. The qualifications are more stringent."
Paul Branstetter said the plane underwent renovations, including getting new engines, so mechanically it was in good condition.
The Branstetters practiced takeoffs and landings at their local airport in Ponca City, Okla., the manager, Don Nuzum, said.
"There'd be times I'd see them two, three times in a week," Nuzum said. "I don't think they slowed down very much."
And they challenged themselves with faraway trips — like the one to the North Pole, where they dropped a plaque with their names on it, a copy of the New Testament and letters to Santa Claus from schoolchildren in Ponca City. That same charitable spirit married with their sense of adventure in their angel flights to transport cancer patients to hospitals.
"They took lots of people lots of places and introduced a lot of people to the joys of flying," Paul Branstetter said.
They also established scholarships for aviation and business students at Oklahoma State, where they met about a half-century ago at a political rally.
One of the scholarships, named after Paula, honors her accomplishments as a pilot, according to a newsletter from the school's education college in 2000.
"We believe everyone can do something extraordinary and this scholarship is one way of encouraging others to follow their own dreams," Olin Branstetter was quoted as saying in that pamphlet. "When we started flying, I appreciated so much that Mrs. Branstetter wasn't afraid to learn to fly. I hope young women will feel the same way."
The Branstetters have maintained their allegiance to Oklahoma State — where the couple met — since Olin graduated from what was then Oklahoma A&M in Stillwater, Okla., in 1952. Paula racked up three years at the school, but never graduated.
Over the years, they became fixtures at athletic events and got to know the coaches.
"They would sit behind the scorer's table and loved to watch Cowgirls basketball," said Jim Littell, the interim head coach for Oklahoma State's women's basketball team. "Everyone in the section knew him, and they knew he loved the Cowgirls."
Murphy reported from Stillwater, Okla.
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