OWLS HEAD, Maine — The airplane that crashed at the Knox County Regional Airport last week had lost a key part when it struck a truck that was crossing in front of it on a runway, according to a preliminary report from a federal agency.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the Cessna 172 single-engine plane lost its right elevator, also known as the right horizontal stabilizer, when it struck the pickup truck owned and operated by Stephen Turner, 62, of Camden.
The loss of the stabilizer amounted to substantial damage to the plane, according to the report.
The crash claimed the lives of two University of Maine students and a UMaine alumnus.
NTSB safety investigator Shawn Etcher told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday that interviews with witnesses found the Cessna had its navigational lights on as it was taking off. The plane had traveled about 1,000 feet on the 5,000-foot runway when it struck the truck.
Turner told investigators he had announced his intention to cross the runway over a radio he had in his truck that used the common air traffic frequency used at the Knox County Regional Airport. Turner said he heard no response and did not see anything on the runway and crossed.
“He subsequently saw something grayish in color, continued to cross the runway, and then got out to inspect what he saw at which time he observed an airplane attempting to climb. He continued watching the airplane drift to the left of the runway and make a left turn as if attempting to return to the airport. Subsequently, the airplane was then observed in slow flight and then it began to spin,” the report states.
Nothing in the report indicates whether Turner felt or heard the collision with the plane. Turner has not returned calls seeking comment about the accident.
The plane crash was reported at 4:44 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16.
Examination of the airplane revealed that it struck the ground nose down, next to a tree approximately 2,200 feet from where it hit the truck, according to the preliminary report. The plane caught fire and was destroyed.
Airport Manager Jeffrey Northgraves said Wednesday he recovered the right horizontal stabilizer from the runway that evening along with some debris from the truck to allow the Cape Air commercial flight to land at 7:30 p.m.
Northgraves told members of the Knox County Airport Advisory Committee at a Wednesday evening meeting that the airplane pilot had been heard before the incident talking on the common frequency.
The lights for the runway were also on, according to Northgraves.
The weather was clear and it was dark when the crash occurred.
The NTSB investigator said Turner’s truck did not have a lighted beacon on it. Lighted beacons are customary for use on airports although Etcher said the investigation would determine whether this was a requirement.
According to another eyewitness statement, who was not identified in the report, “the airplane was observed departing to the west and appeared to be doing a left climbing ‘chandelle’ type maneuver. The airplane also had what appeared to be a high angle of attack. About 200 feet above ground level the navigation identification lights were observed rotating slowly counter clockwise. The airplane then appeared to pitch down and descended behind trees.”
Etcher stressed that the preliminary report is subject to change, and may contain errors.
The final report is expected to be completed in six to 12 months.
The three men killed in the crash were William B.J. Hannigan III, 24, of South Portland, who is believed to have been the pilot of the Cessna; David Cheney, 22, of Beverly, Mass.; and Marcelo Rugini, 24, of Muliterno, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. The three men were members of the fraternity and had left Bangor International Airport at 11:30 a.m. Friday for a day of flying.
Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plan was filed, according to the NTSB preliminary report.
About an hour before the crash, the plane flew over Spear’s Vegetable Farm in Nobleboro, which Rugini has called home since coming to the United States six years ago through a program called Communities for Agriculture.
The Knox County airport is a noncontrol airport, meaning it does not have a control tower. Airplane pilots do not have to get permission to land nor do they have to log in when landing or taking off.
Northgraves said planes are not required to have radios although he said all 85 aircraft that use the airport on a regular basis have radios except for the antique planes maintained by the Owls Head Transportation Museum. He said an ultralight airplane that flies out of the airport even has a radio.
Planes do not have to file flight plans nor is there any recording equipment on the planes, he said.
He said, however, pilots are trained to communicate their positions and intentions using the common radio frequency. He said the same rules for flight are used at 34 other airports in Maine that have no control tower.
Bangor International Airport and the Portland Jetport have control towers.
Hannigan was certified to fly both during the day and night.