Rockefeller great-grandson dies in Westchester plane crash

Photo of Paul Schott

Richard Rockefeller, great-grandson of Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller, was killed Friday morning in a small-airplane crash, minutes after he took off from Westchester County Airport in adverse weather.

He died fewer than 24 hours after flying into Westchester County to celebrate the 99th birthday of his father, David, a banker and philanthropist.

"He was a warm and extraordinary man, brilliant and idealistic about medicine and social issues," said Greenwich resident Florence Phillips, a close friend of the Rockefeller family. "It's inconceivable that this happened."

Rockefeller's Piper Meridian single-engine turboprop went down in the yard of a house on Cottage Avenue in Purchase, N.Y., a hamlet about a mile from New York's border with Greenwich. Rockefeller, 65, was the only person on board.

The plane narrowly missed the two-story house, which was occupied at the time. No one on the ground was hurt.

Wreckage was strewn across the yard Friday afternoon, with plane parts lodged in a stand of trees the plane clipped before impact, smashing trunks and scything off branches.

Residents of the home were not available for comment Friday.

"It's a terrible tragedy," said Rockefeller family spokesman Fraser Seitel. "The family is in shock. Richard was a wonderful and cherished member of the family. He was an experienced pilot.

"He was a medical doctor, and it's horribly sad."

Rockefeller was bound for Portland, Maine, in weather that aviation officials described as extreme.

"It was foggy conditions outside," Peter Scherrer, Westchester County Airport operations manager, said at a news conference Friday. "You can only see about a quarter-mile down the runway ... Indications are it was a 200-foot (visibility) ceiling, but indefinite, meaning he couldn't visually see the ceiling. Those are extreme conditions."

That visibility fell below the standards of visual flight rules, which are based on the principle of "see and avoid" -- meaning a pilot can navigate by sight. Scherrer could not confirm whether Rockefeller was qualified to fly under the more complex instrument flight rules.

Rockefeller had a private pilot's license, according to a Federal Aviation Administration database.

He was apparently cleared for his flight to Portland, with Scherrer reporting that Rockefeller followed all of the airport's rules and regulations before taking off.

"The pilot makes a decision on whether he's able to go," Scherrer said.

Shortly after Rockefeller departed from runway 16, the FAA's control tower notified airport operations that Rockefeller was missing from radar and that it could not make contact with him.

Local emergency services were then alerted to the missing aircraft.

At approximately 8:20 a.m., the Harrison Police Department informed airport operations that the plane had crashed.

An investigation is underway, led by the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board. Flight tapes had not yet been reviewed Friday, but Scherrer said there was no mayday signal from Rockefeller or any other reported signs of distress from the pilot. The airport was briefly closed after the crash. It reopened around 9:45 a.m., according to officials.

The loss of Rockefeller was also felt acutely in Westchester County, where the Rockefellers have deep roots.

"They're very much a part of Westchester County and its history, so our deepest sympathies go out to David Rockefeller and the entire Rockefeller family," Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino said at the news conference.

A nephew of Nelson A. Rockefeller, a former vice president and governor of New York from 1959 to 1973, Richard Rockefeller was a family physician in Falmouth, Maine. He also practiced and taught medicine in Portland and was involved in a variety of health-related nonprofit activities, according to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

He founded and served as president of Health Commons Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to improving American medicine through the use of computer-based information tools and shared decision making between patients and physicians.

He chaired the U.S. advisory board of Doctors Without Borders from 1989 to 2010 and served on the board of Rockefeller University until 2006.

Rockefeller is survived by his wife and two grown children.

Frank Juliano contributed

to this report.