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3 victims identified after midair collision in Boulder County

One plane was found in a field in the area of 95th and Niwot. The second plane was found on the north side of Niwot Road.

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. — Three people who died after a midair plane collision in Boulder County on Saturday morning have been identified.

According to the Boulder County Sheriff's Office (BCSO), the collision was first reported at 8:54 a.m. Saturday. The sheriff's office said three people died as a result of the crash.

On Monday morning, the Boulder County Coroner's Office identified the victims as Daniel Wilmoth, 22; Samuel Fisher, 23, and Henry Butler, 69.

One of the planes was found in a field in the 10,000 block of Niwot Road, while the other aircraft was discovered in a cluster of trees closer to the 9700 block of Niwot Road.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the types of aircraft involved were a Cessna 172 and a Sonex Xenos. The Sonex Xenos is a lightweight, aluminum, low-wing, two seat aircraft. 

The NTSB said there were two people on board the Cessna -- an instructor and a student. There was one person in the Sonex. 

Neither aircraft was in contact with air traffic control at the time of the incident, and neither aircraft was required to be at the time of the crash, according to the NTSB's lead investigator for the accident, Mike Folkerts.

A preliminary assessment of the aircraft showed that neither aircraft was equipped with a collision avoidance system or any kind of display in the cockpit to alert the pilot to other aircraft in the area. They were not required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to have those capabilities, Folkerts explained.

Seeing and hearing planes flying overhead along Niwot Road isn't out of the ordinary for local residents.

> Video above: Sky9 footage showing the first downed plane.

"Not uncommon to see lots of small planes especially on a weekend morning," said Cary Hayes, who heard the planes crash Saturday morning. "We do get a decent amount of air traffic around here."

"Not used to hearing that pop though," said Hayes. "That was a little unusual." 

He was sitting in his living room around 9 a.m. Saturday when he heard the plane crash. 

Credit: KUSA - Alex Castillo

"It's hard to believe on a beautiful sunny day like today that they could hit each other, but it happens," said Hayes.  

Neighbors in the area gathered outside to see what happened. 

"I've never heard a plane crash before, but we both said to each other, 'That was a plane crash,'" said Cindy Wolcott. "It was just, I don’t know, instinctually felt that that was the case.”

She was inside, too, when she heard the crash.  

"We came outside and we started looking for smoke," said Wolcott. "Didn't see any smoke from either of the planes."

She said they walked past the wreckage of one of the planes twice without realizing it because it was hidden in the trees, right across from her home. 

Credit: KUSA - Alex Castillo

"Never, ever, thought it would be this close," said Wolcott. 

Chief Dave Bebee with Mountain View Fire Rescue said three people died and there were no fires for them to put out.

"Got here, found one of the wreckages relatively quickly," he said. "The other wreckage was in some trees and some other vegetation so that one took a little bit longer."

Bebee said they're doing an extensive search of the relatively rural area. 

"We've brought in one of the medical helicopters to do a flyover," he said. "We're doing drone flyovers just to make sure nothing is missed."

There are still more questions than answers right now. 

"It's so stunningly beautiful and clear," said Wolcott. "How does a midair collision happen when it's so clear?" 

But, these residents are glad they have each other after a tragedy like this one. 

"We all sort of pull together in times like this so I really appreciate that about our little community here," said Hayes. 

> Video above: Sky9 footage showing the second downed plane.

9NEWS Aviation Safety Analyst Greg Feith said that whenever there is a midair collision, there's a multifaceted investigation. 

"You have to look again, first and foremost at each aircraft for any kind of mechanical malfunction, failure or anomalies that would cause or contributed to the accident," he said, adding that the other factor includes looking at the avionics of each plane, including the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). 

"That uses transponder information and the transponder basically pings a signal from the airplane. It's picked up by air traffic control radar so that your plane can be identified by the number, altitude and ground speed. But the technology also lets airplanes communicate among each other. So now the same ping goes off between point or one airplane to the other," Feith explained. 

Besides that system, Feith believes this is more of a "see and avoid" type accident. 

"That is on a beautiful day like this, it is incumbent upon each pilot flying in the airspace to clear the area visually to ensure that things like this don't happen," he said. 

Feith adds that the airspace around where this crash may have happened, is known to have high air traffic, especially since it's known as a "training box."

"So you have a lot of airplanes operating in a band of airspace or a box of airspace. And if there are pilots that are training but transient aircraft coming through that area, of course, it's incumbent upon all pilots to make a number of radio calls in the blind so that you can alert other pilots who may be in the near vicinity to where you are, what you're doing, what altitude you're operating at.," Feith explained. 

While it's still unclear what exactly led up to this crash, Feith notes that the recent pilot shortage has generally increased the number of people going to flight schools.

"Right now, because pilot training has escalated ten-fold because of the pilot shortage in the airlines," he said. 

In any case, Feith says there will also be environmental factors to be looked at too. 

"So they're going to be looking at sun angles - were the pilots flying in to - in a direction that may have given them sun glare so they really couldn't see," he said.

The FAA and NTSB are investigating the crash. NTSB said that a preliminary report will be released in about 15 days. The full investigation, however, can take more than a year.

Niwot Road between Highway 287 and 95th Street was closed while Mountain View Fire Rescue and BCSO investigated the crash. The public was asked to stay away from the area.

Any witnesses are asked to call Detective Galloway and leave a voicemail at 303-441-4763 or send an email to lgalloway@boulder.org.

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