Friends' love of flight ends in death

Longtime colleagues at Johns Hopkins lab die in plane crash

November 03, 2001|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The two men who died in a plane crash near Westminster this week built a 30-year friendship around the delicate timekeeping instruments they designed for spacecraft and a mutual love of flying.

James Matthew Cloeren, 67, of Westminster and Jerry Ralph Norton, 63, of Marriottsville died Tuesday when the plane they built together and co-owned crashed into a field southwest of Westminster. Colleagues remembered them as remarkable scientific craftsmen.

"One way to think of it is that these guys built the best clocks in the world, no, probably in the universe," said Lee Edwards, their supervisor at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel.

The time instruments Mr. Cloeren and Mr. Norton built, known as ultra-stable oscillators, are equivalent to a clock that would lose no more than a second in a million years, Mr. Edwards said.

Watches and clocks always seem to lose a second here or a second there and are often tweaked for accuracy monthly or yearly.

But in space, where the nature of a particle can change several times in a second, the clocks on data-collecting satellites must be precise. With no one around to reset them, they must survive years of radical changes in temperature and shifts in magnetic pull without losing a tick.

Mr. Cloeren and Mr. Norton built custom oscillators for leading satellite producers, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and the European Space Agency. A 1998 letter from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory described the oscillators as "the finest in the solar system in terms of the cleanliness and stability of their output."

The two operated out of adjacent offices at the Hopkins lab, where Mr. Cloeren had worked for 18 years and Mr. Norton for 40. The other eight researchers in their group remained stunned Friday by their deaths, Mr. Edwards said.

Country gentleman

Colleagues described Mr. Norton as a laid-back country gentleman who retained the western North Carolina accent of his youth. Born in Otto, N.C., he attended Duke University for two years and graduated with a degree in applied science from Capitol Radio Engineering Institute in Washington in 1960. He also enjoyed photography and gardening.

"They have beautiful, well-maintained pear and apple trees," neighbor Barbara Andersen said of Mr. Norton and his wife. "He was always working outside - that's where we would run into him all the time. He was a very nice man."

Colleagues described Mr. Cloeren, who supervised the research group, as the more vocal of the two.

"He struck you as a guy with a lot of kind of wisdom," Mr. Edwards said. "He was in the Navy and really came up through the ranks, so he could understand people's points of view on many different levels."

Passion for flying

Mr. Cloeren lived in Maryland most of his life and attended Gonzaga College Preparatory High School in Washington, Mr. Edwards said. He graduated from Montgomery College in Rockville in 1963.

He talked often of his love for flying, a hobby he had pursued since he was 17, said nephew Matthew Raeder. Mr. Cloeren took local Boy Scouts on flights hoping to share with them the joys of piloting. Mr. Cloeren's daughter and granddaughter also are pilots.

"He would rather have been flying than doing anything else," Mr. Raeder said. "My dad used to say that he knew that's how Jim would go, because that's what he loved to do most."

Mr. Norton had been flying about 20 years, and though he talked of it less often, everyone knew he and Mr. Cloeren worked on planes and flew together, Mr. Edwards said.

Their plane was a 1999 Titan Tornado II, a popular two-seat, single-engine model that 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.

The cause of the crash had not been determined Friday, said David Muzio, inspector for the National Transportation Safety Board.

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

Despite being homemade, the experimental aircraft are licensed and inspected by the Federal Aviation Administration. "It's a very rigorous procedure," Mr. 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," said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.

A funeral service for Mr. Norton will be held at 1 p.m. today at Haight Funeral Home and Chapel in Sykesville. He is survived by his wife, Ann S. Norton, and daughters Maria Norton Lawall, Jane Norton and Tina Lynn Norton; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service for Mr. Cloeren will be held at 1 p.m. Nov. 17 at St. John's Roman Catholic Church in Westminster. He is survived by his wife, LaHoma Cloeren, and daughter, Cathy Cloeren of Boca Raton, Fla.

Sun staff writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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