Costa Rican airline that crashed New Year’s Eve, killing a Pinellas family has a history

This photo released by Costa Rica’s Civil Aviation press office shows the site of a plane crash in Punta Islita, Guanacaste, Costa Rica, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017. A government statement says there were 10 foreigners and two Costa Rican crew members aboard the plane belonging to Nature Air, which had taken off nearby. (Costa Rica’s Civil Aviation press office via AP)

(WFLA) – An eyewitness reported seeing a small passenger plane bank sharply, then plummet toward the ground seconds before it crashed and burned in Costa Rica, killing all four members of the Weiss family from Belleair and eight others on board New Year’s Eve.

Leslie and Mitchell Weiss were well-loved and highly respected doctors practicing at Morton Plant Hospital. Their son Ari was in high school and daughter Hanna was in college at Columbia.

“They were all just having fun and then all of a sudden the whole family is gone,” said family friend Noah Hirschfield.

The family was on an adventure tour sponsored by the Backroads Active Travel Company, which released a statement saying the company was “heartbroken” by the deaths of twelve people, including one of its guides.

Backroads had contracted with a vendor, Nature Air, which calls itself Costa Rica’s largest airline, for a trip from the Pacific coast to San Jose.

The Nature Air plane reportedly had trouble landing earlier in the day and had to divert to another airfield due to high winds before returning to the airport of departure where the Weiss family and another family of friends from New York climbed on board the single engine Cessna Grand Caravan for their short, ill-fated flight.

Related: Friends remember Pinellas Co. family killed in Costa Rica plane crash

Aviation expert Capt. John Cox tells 8 On Your Side the Grand Caravan is a workhorse and well-suited for Costa Rican short hops on short airfields. Cox says the eyewitness account may prove critical to the crash investigation.

“That’s something the investigators will want to look into to see if the impact is consistent with [an aerodynamic] stall or wind shear event, something where there is a loss of control and uncommanded flight,” Cox said.

Cox says a previous fatal Nature Air crash in September is also a possible factor as Costa Rican investigators try to unravel the cause of the New Year’s Eve air disaster.

”If there are common areas that were not fixed after the first accident then you may want to look at whether this operation can actually manage itself, can the management take corrective actions to ensure passenger safety,” Cox said.

Nature Air had two other non-fatal crashes in 2005 and 2006. There’s no indication whether the Weiss family knew of the airline’s history before climbing aboard the fatal flight.

Would Cox fly Nature Air knowing what he knows now?

“I probably would want to ask a lot of pointed questions,” Cox said. “But I wouldn’t rule it out.”

Cox said the accident in investigation could take a year or longer.

There’s no word yet on funeral arrangements for the Weiss family but friends are planning some sort of memorial on Jan. 8.

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