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Truck driver, pilot’s takeoff cited as causes of plane crash that claimed three lives in Owls Head

Posted May 09, 2014, at 7:43 a.m.
Last modified May 09, 2014, at 11:23 a.m.

OWLS HEAD, Maine — The National Transportation Safety Board found fault with both the driver of a pickup truck that crossed the path of an airplane as it was taking off and the pilot’s decision to continue his takeoff in a collision that resulted in the deaths of three young men.

The board issued its final report Friday, providing its conclusions on the probable causes of a Nov. 16, 2012, crash at the Knox County Regional Airport.

Federal investigators determined that the driver of the pickup truck that crossed the runway, Stephen Turner, 63, of Camden, failed to verify that the runway was not occupied by an airplane before crossing it.

But the investigators also concluded that the pilot, William “BJ” Hannigan, 24, of South Portland, likely could have stopped the airplane on the remaining 3,600 feet of paved runway after impact with the vehicle. The report acknowledged that the plane was likely at or past liftoff speed when the collision occurred about 4:45 p.m., 40 minutes after sunset.

Hannigan had logged nearly 50 hours of flight as of June 2012, including more than 17 hours of solo flying. His experience included four hours of night flight with another pilot aboard, but less than one hour of night flight as the pilot in command as of June 15, 2012, according to the board’s report.

The report also pointed out that the truck driver did not have a yellow beacon on his vehicle and said he never had been required to do so.

After the crash, the airport required beacons to be placed on top of all vehicles that operate anywhere on airport grounds where planes may be. The airport also constructed a road on the far side of the airport to reduce the number of times vehicles must cross the runways. That $100,000 project was completed last year.

The airport manager pointed out previously, however, there still will be reasons for vehicles to cross the main runway at the current crossing, but that he has taken other administrative steps to improve safety. Among those steps, the airport is requiring additional training for people who operate vehicles within the fence of the airport grounds.

Northgraves said the report contained no real surprises.

Telephone messages were left with Turner and the attorney for the estate of the pilot but were not immediately returned.

Insurance companies for Turner and the company he worked for paid the bulk of a nearly $4 million settlement — reached last September — to the estates of the three young men killed.

The Nov. 16 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.; the fraternity’s education officer, Marcelo Rugini, 24, of Muliterno, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil; and pilot Hannigan. He was an engineering graduate student and member of the Maine Air National Guard.

Knox County’s share of the $3,950,000 settlement was $15,000, which county’s attorney Peter Marchesi said last year showed the county was not at fault in the tragedy.

Marchesi said the bulk of the settlement came from the automobile insurance policy held by Turner and the insurance held by Penobscot Island Air. Turner, who was a pilot and worked for Penobscot Air, was crossing the runway in his pickup truck when he struck the plane that was taking off on the main runway.

The insurance company for the flying club in Bangor of which Hannigan was a member also paid out part of the settlement, Marchesi said last year.

Turner told a National Transportation Safety Board 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,” safety investigator Shawn Etcher wrote in his 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.

The final report issued Friday stated that the plane’s lights were likely on at the time of the crash.

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. The truck had minor damage on the front and was impounded immediately as part of the investigation. Pieces of the truck’s headlights and plastic grill also were found on the runway.

After the crash, the estates of each of the young men filed claims against various parties, including Knox County, saying the county was negligent for, among other things, allowing a motor vehicle on the runway with inadequate lighting and other defects. The notices also claimed that the county failed to adopt and enforce safety rules or to properly train people who use the airport facilities, and that the runways were not properly designed or managed.

Marchesi said last year, however, that the settlement shows the county was not at fault.

“I’ve been involved in this case from the day after the crash and I can say that the county essentially had done everything the FAA had recommended,” Marchesi said. “For a small, non-towered airport, this is nothing short of exemplary.”

He said the FAA regularly issues circulars to airports on safety regulations and the county has followed those recommendations.

Kevin Waters, founder of Penobscot Island Air, said last year that his insurance company got snared in the matter because Turner is an employee of the company and the company’s insurance covers employees’ use of their private vehicles.

Waters said last year he has a lot of different feelings about the settlement, but foremost he realizes the incident was a tremendous tragedy that resulted in the deaths of three young men.

 

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