Federal Aviation Administration investigators said yesterday that the pilot of the small plane that ran out of fuel and crashed into woods in White Marsh Sunday afternoon told air traffic controllers he was low on fuel about 20 minutes before the Cessna 172 went down.
The pilot, who circled the area for about an hour because controllers couldn't find his flight plans, could have declared an emergency and landed before he was out of fuel, aviation officials and experts say.
FOR THE RECORD - A July 1 article about the crash of a small plane in White Marsh incorrectly identified the group for whom Jim Crook serves as vice president for operations. The organization is the Air Traffic Control Association. The Sun regrets the error.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating why controllers didn't give the pilot approval to land sooner and whether the pilot had properly filed his flight plans. Such plans must be filed when entering restricted airspace, as in the Baltimore-Washington area.
"We're going to sort through it," said Luke Schiada, an air safety investigator with the NTSB. "A big part of this is going to be the air traffic control information -- the timing aspects, what was said and when it was said."
It will likely be six months before the board examines all the factors in the accident and issues a report.
The pilot of the single-engine, four-seat plane, Dale Roger, a 41-year-old technology project leader from Lutherville, was released from Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center yesterday after receiving stitches for a gash on his forehead.
The plane was carrying two passengers -- Roger's brother and a co-worker. Neither was seriously injured.
FAA spokesman Jim Peters said Roger reported he was low on fuel about 12:15 p.m. Sunday. By 12:35, the plane had crashed, Peters said.
Some pilots say the accident highlights difficulties general aviation pilots experience flying in the restricted airspace in the Baltimore-Washington area.
"Because of the inability of the system to handle all the aircraft, it was only a matter of time before something like this happened," said Warren Morningstar, a vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based in Frederick.
Much of the airspace around Baltimore and Washington falls into what the Federal Aviation Administration call Air Defense Identification Zones -- areas with a 30-mile radius surrounding airports such as Baltimore-Washington International. Pilots flying in these zones must file flight plans and receive clearance before entering restricted airspace.
Morningstar said it's not uncommon for pilots like Roger to be told by air traffic controllers that their flight plans can't be found.
"We've had continuous problems like these," he said. "Flight plans are lost every day."
Roger said he called and filed his plan to leave from Martin State Airport for a short trip to Hagerstown early Sunday.
He landed at Hagerstown Regional Airport about 9:30 a.m. and touched down briefly at Frederick Municipal Airport before beginning the return to Martin State Airport about 11 a.m. A report also would have to be filed for the return trip.
Roger said he circled Martin for about an hour while talking to traffic controllers about the missing plans and trying unsuccessfully to make contact with a flight service center to file a new one.
But some pilots wonder why such rigid restrictions are in place.
"Anyone can get a clearance within the 30-mile ring. ... So why even ask them for it?" said David Wartofsky, owner of Potomac Airfield in Friendly. "The air traffic control procedures have reached pointless overload."
Jim Crook, vice president for operations at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, agrees that the workload for traffic controllers has increased because of the regulations imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But he doesn't think it's a big problem.
"I don't think they're understaffed," Cook said.
Dennis McCoy, chairman of the Tipton Airport Authority in Fort Meade, said he expected the restrictions to have been lifted by now. But he said, "While it is a bit of a nuisance, it's something most pilots take in stride."
McCoy said he has never had a problem with a lost flight plan.
Roger guessed that his plans dropped out of the system because he was late taking off. However, it's unclear why he was given clearance from the Potomac Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON, to take off if the flight plans weren't active.
Rogers said it wasn't until the engine sputtered that he realized he wouldn't make it to the runway.
About four miles away from the Middle River runway, the engine cut off and Roger declared an emergency landing and glided the plane into woods off Mohrs Lane, where the plane he had rented from Phoenix Aviation in Essex ended up on its nose with its tail twisted.
Owners of Phoenix Aviation in Middle River did not return repeated phone calls about the accident yesterday.
Roger said he thinks problems with TRACON were partially to blame for the crash. But he also blames himself.
"Ultimately the pilot is responsible for what happens," he said.