OWLS HEAD, Maine — The driver of a pickup truck that collided with an airplane shortly before it crashed on Nov. 16 at the Knox County Regional Airport, killing three young men, told police that the incident occurred so fast that he is not sure what happened.
Knox County Chief Deputy Tim Carroll said Tuesday he spoke briefly with Stephen Turner, 62, of Camden immediately after the plane crash. He said Turner told him that it all happened so quickly that he did not know if his truck and the plane had collided on the runway.
Carroll said he knew the National Transportation Safety Board was taking over the investigation and left additional interviewing of Turner to the federal agency’s investigators.
NTSB investigator Shawn Etcher declined Tuesday to offer more details about what Turner told him. Etcher said the investigation is continuing and investigators will be checking into what Turner said before a final report is issued in six to 12 months.
Turner has not returned telephone messages asking for comment nor responded to a note left by the Bangor Daily News at his place of employment.
Pieces of both the right elevator and the right rear stabilizer from the Cessna 172 single-engine plane were found on the runway near the site where the collision occurred, according to Airport Manager Jeffrey Northgraves.
The truck had minor damage on the front and immediately was impounded as part of the investigation. Pieces of the truck’s headlights and plastic grill were also on the runway at the site of the collision, Northgraves said.
Etcher said Tuesday the airplane landed at the Knox County airport so that a passenger in one of the rear seats in the plane could swap seats with the passenger in the front.
Shortly after 4:30 p.m., Turner, who works for Penobscot Island Air as a pilot and instructor, had parked a plane in a hangar on the opposite side of the airport from the terminal.
Turner then drove his 1994 GMC pickup truck back toward the terminal. He went out to a taxiway and stopped at the hold short line of the runway, according to a preliminary NTSB report.
Turner told the NTSB investigator that he announced over the common traffic advisory frequency for aircraft that he planned to cross the runway. He said he heard no response and didn’t see anything on the 5,000-foot-long Runway 31, so he proceeded to cross.
“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,” Etcher wrote in the preliminary report. “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 plane then went nose-down into the woods about 2,200 feet from where the truck and plane collided on the runway, according to the federal agency’s preliminary report.
The crash claimed the lives of two University of Maine students and a UMaine alumnus. Killed were Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity President David Cheney, 22, of Beverly, Mass; education officer Marcelo Rugini, 24, of Muliterno, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil; and pilot William “BJ” Hannigan, 24, of South Portland, an engineering graduate student and member of the Maine Air National Guard.
Etcher stressed that the preliminary report is subject to change, and may contain errors.
“This was a real tragedy. This type of accident is extremely rare,” said Kathleen Vasconcelos, vice president of education and operations for the Aircraft Operators and Pilots Association. She said collisions between aircraft and other types of vehicles are so rare that there is not even a classification for this type of crash to compile statistics.
Vasconcelos added that aircraft always have the right of way over other vehicles on airport runways.
In sharing other details about the accident, airport manager Northgraves told members of the Knox County Airport advisory committee at a meeting last week that the airplane pilot had been heard before the incident talking on the common radio frequency.
The lights for the runway were on, according to Northgraves, and witnesses reported seeing the plane’s lights on.
The weather was clear with light winds that Friday as the men were enjoying a sightseeing trip along the coast after leaving Bangor International Airport at 11:30 a.m.
Shortly after 3:30 p.m., the plane flew over Spear’s Vegetable Farm in Nobleboro, where Rugini had worked and lived since coming to the United States six years ago through a program called Communities for Agriculture.
Northgraves said the Knox County Airport has no control tower and does not require pilots to file flight plans. Pilots also do not have to get permission to land nor do they have to log in when landing or taking off at the Owls Head airport.
He said pilots using the airport must fly by visual observations and that pilots also 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.
Turner’s truck also had a radio for communicating on the same frequency but it did not have the lighted beacon that is customary on non-aircraft vehicles used at airports. Etcher said last week that the lack of a lighted beacon on the truck would be part of the investigation.
Northgraves said Tuesday he would be meeting with airport users next week about what can be done to improve safety.