After two years, the probe into a small-plane crash that killed the pilot and set fire to two homes in West Towson has so far yielded only more questions, the chief investigator said this week.
"It's a unique accident, believe me," said Dennis L. Jones, a Washington-based investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
On Nov. 11, 1988, a twin-engine plane piloted by Sheldon D. Fineman of Blue Bell, Pa., fell into a steep dive, pulled up for a short time, then dived again, crashing and bursting into flames in the back yard of a home on Chestnut Avenue.
The fire spread to two homes, causing about $100,000 in damage but no other injuries.
A 131-page report, issued in September by the NTSB, reported that the 58-year-old businessman, who was flying his own plane back to Philadelphia from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, first reported having trouble six minutes after he took off at 4:20 p.m.
"I'm having a little problem, and I can't figure it out yet," he said. He was given permission to make an emergency landing at Martin State Airport. Four minutes later, Mr. Fineman again radioed BWI: "I'm at 3,000 feet and I'm having problems that I can't figure out."
Witnesses said the plane changed directions several times before it crashed. Some said they saw it descend once, recover, then descend again before the impact. Several witnesses also said the plane did not appear to be having engine problems. One witness thought the pilot was performing "aerobatics."
Mr. Fineman never told air-traffic controllers what problems he was having, the report said.
No evidence of mechanical problems, if any existed, survived the crash and fire, Mr. Jones said Wednesday. An autopsy and blood tests revealed no medical problems or drug or alcohol use, the report noted.
The evidence, Mr. Jones said, "doesn't indicate an extreme emergency."
Just before the crash, the pilot radioed what sounded to investigators like, "I'm going out the emerg. . ." before the transmission cut off.
Mr. Fineman apparently removed the plane's emergency window, found about 200 yards east of the accident site, after the aircraft pulled out of its first dive but before it plummeted a second time.
Mr. Jones said there was no obvious reason for the pilot to try to escape from the aircraft midair since he was not carrying a parachute. None of the investigators, he said, "could make any sense out of that."
The report will be weighed by the safety board when it meets, probably in late January, to try to assign a probable cause. Mr. Jones said that a limited number of accidents investigated by the agency are blamed on "undetermined" causes.