Pilot returns to wreckage, meets with families Investigators expect report on crash to be ready within 60 days

September 19, 1997|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

The pilot whose stealth fighter slammed into an eastern Baltimore County neighborhood returned to inspect the plane's charred remains yesterday and, in a gesture of thanks, gave his flight suit name tag to a woman who had come to his aid.

Before touring the crash scene, Maj. Bryan Knight was questioned by investigators, who said a report on the F-117A fighter's crash may be completed within 60 days.

Col. Mark E. Dougherty, a former stealth pilot who is heading the search for the cause of the crash, gave few details from the interview with the pilot. But he said the plane was rising at an angle of about 15 degrees, on the lookout for civilian aircraft in the area, when trouble struck.

"I think we know what happened: Part of his wing came off," Dougherty said. He said investigators have no reason to believe pilot error was to blame.

"We're not going to find any fault with the pilot," the investigator said yesterday. "He did exactly what I would have done."

Dougherty said the pilot has a sore neck and back from ejecting from the plane, but is otherwise bouncing back from the frightening experience unhurt.

"Now, it's just the hangover from hurting property," Dougherty said.

Dougherty said the crash apparently came without warning during a flight from an air show in Syracuse to an Air Force base in Virginia -- an otherwise "picture-perfect sortie."

"He was right on time, and everything was working out until the wingtip came off," Dougherty said. "He tried to fly the airplane. It quit flying and stalled out."

The fighter crashed into the waterfront neighborhood of Bowleys Quarters after a piece of its left wing snapped off during an air show flyby at Martin State Airport on Sunday afternoon.

Knight safely parachuted from the plane just before it flopped onto the driveway near the home of Mark and Elizabeth "Betsy" Green.

Diann Stumpf, who was in her family's weekend homenear the crash scene, rushed to aid Knight.

Yesterday, as workers began to remove parts of the plane from the neighborhood, Knight met for about a half-hour with the two families.

"He was very appreciative to the Stumpfs. It was rather emotional between him and the Greens, but they were very understanding," said Maj. Cecily Christian, an Air Force spokeswoman.

Knight -- lanky and sandy-haired, and wearing sunglasses -- did not comment to reporters as he left the crash scene. He is a decorated pilot with about 2,700 hours of flying time, including 500 hours of experience in the cockpit of F-117A fighters, Air Force officials said.

About an hour after he left the neighborhood, workers backed a flatbed truck near the site to take the plane's remaining wing to nearby Martin State Airport.

The rear rudders were wrapped in black plastic, ready to be taken to a hangar at the airport.

There, Dougherty said, engineers from Lockheed Martin Corp. will help investigators analyze the parts.

Metallurgical details

The portion of wing that broke off is to be sent to Lockheed Martin's West Coast facility, where engineers will magnify stress fractures.

"They'll be able to tell us exactly, in gory detail, what happened metallurgically to that wing when it ripped off," he said.

A 20-ton crane is to be used to lift the plane's body. Air Force officials hope to have the plane removed by Tuesday. After that, they will work to reconstitute any contaminated soil at the site.

Dougherty said several factors bode well for the investigation.

"When you can put an airplane that size on the Greens' front yard, that's a pretty small crash site. We've got a live pilot. We've got lots of video," he said. "We've got lots of eyewitnesses."

Two dozen experts

Dougherty, 45, is a fighter pilot who years ago flew the very plane that crashed Sunday. As president of the Air Force Permanent Investigation Board, he leads a team of up to two dozen experts assigned to find the cause of the stealth fighter crash.

The son of an Air Force general, he is vice commander of the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Last year, he headed investigations into two military incidents: the crash of an Air National Guard F-16 into a field in South Dakota, and the shooting of stray rounds from a jet that damaged two houses in Indiana.

He said the "what happened" phase of the investigation should take about a week, and investigators would take 30 to 45 days to determine why the crash occurred -- and whether the plane has structural problems that might endanger future flights.

"This is serious business. We not only have an airplane that we want to make safe to fly in, but we want it to be a threat to somebody and be a deterrent," Dougherty said.

"If it's not in the air, it's not a deterrent to anybody."

Pub Date: 9/19/97

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