Pair killed in crash built plane they were flying

Men designed devices for unmanned satellites at Hopkins laboratory

November 01, 2001|By Childs Walker and Jennifer McMenamin | Childs Walker and Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Two men who died in a plane crash near Westminster on Tuesday worked together at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, where both specialized in designing intricate navigation, data-recording and time-keeping devices for unmanned satellites.

Jerry Ralph Norton, 63, of Marriottsville and James Mathew Cloeren, 67, of Westminster were veteran employees of the lab. Cloeren had worked there 18 years and Norton 40. They wrote a paper together in 1996 called, "Brief History of Ultra-Precise Oscillators for Ground and Space Applications."

The two were killed Tuesday afternoon when the experimental plane they were flying crashed in a field southwest of Westminster. The cause of the crash remained unknown yesterday, but a preliminary report probably will be released within a week, said David Muzio, the National Transportation Safety Board official in charge of the investigation.

According to the plane's registration, Cloeren and Norton built and co-owned the 1999 Titan Tornado II, a popular two-seat, single-engine aircraft.

The plane holds about 10 gallons of fuel and cruises at about 80 mph, said Dick Knapinski, a spokesman with the Experimental Aircraft Association of Oshkosh, Wis.

Kits to build the Tornado II cost about $12,000, not including the engine, which can cost several thousand dollars more. A new Cessna aircraft, comparable in size and design, costs about $150,000, Knapinski said.

Experimental pilots tend to enjoy building and custom designing their planes, Knapinski said. Many employ innovations that can make homebuilt aircraft more fuel efficient or faster than similar manufactured models.

Despite being homemade, the experimental aircraft are licensed and inspected by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"It's a very rigorous procedure," Knapinski said. "You have to show how the aircraft was built, you have annual inspections, and the pilots have to have the same licensing as someone who flies a Cessna or Beechcraft aircraft."

Last year, 232 accidents involving experimental planes - about 12.6 percent of all air accidents - were reported, according to the NTSB. Seventy-one people died in the accidents.

Homebuilt aircraft make up about 11 percent of general aviation aircraft flown in the United States.

"So, basically, the accident figures for homebuilt aircraft are in proportion to their representation within the overall general aviation fleet," said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.

Experimental planes can be quite safe, enthusiasts said.

"Some people will tell you that these homebuilt aircraft are not built very well," Knapinski said. "But if I'm building something that's going to be 3,000 feet in the air and going 150 mph, I sure am going to make sure all the bolts are put on right because it's my responsibility and because it's my butt in the chair at that point."

Relatives of Norton and Cloeren could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Sun staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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