Pilot in crash known for his skill

Accident: Experienced cargo aviator had logged many flights daily, but had to use an aircraft with a spotty safety record.

Fatal Flight

May 15, 2004|By Molly Knight and Childs Walker | Molly Knight and Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Most of the time, Thomas F. Lennon traveled solo, flying through the night in his Mitsubishi M-U2, a two-engine propeller plane. Ferrying shipments of financial documents and checks from one city to the next, he was one of a close-knit group of cargo aviators known in the industry as "Freight Dogs."

Early yesterday morning, Lennon, 34, took off from Philadelphia on what would be his final flight.

Minutes before he was scheduled to land at a cargo field at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, he was killed when his plane plummeted to the ground less than half a mile from the landing strip. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

Unlike many pilots who work as cargo-carriers to log hours in the air, Lennon was an experienced pilot who spent five years flying for Epps Aviation, an Atlanta-based company that transports documents and checks for Northeastern banks.

"He was a skilled pilot," said Rebecca Lorber, a company spokeswoman. "He had the same ratings as a commercial airline pilot."

Lorber also said that Lennon, of Drexel Hill, Pa., was familiar with the half-hour journey between Philadelphia and Baltimore, often making the trip to carry checks for the Federal Reserve. At the time of the crash, Lennon was on his sixth consecutive trip in a day between the two cities.

Residents of Lennon's neighborhood expressed shock and sadness yesterday at the news of his death.

"He loved to fly," said Thomas Crane, adding: "He was just a great guy ... the best neighbor you could ask for."

Neighbor James Tiedeman said Lennon was married about a year ago, adding: "He was a nice young kid - it's a real sad thing."

Tiedeman also spoke about Lennon's love for flying.

"He was a focused, energetic and driven young man," he said. "He wanted to be a pilot, and they'll do anything to keep flying. ... He did what he had to do."

Of all the jobs available to aspiring pilots, flying freight is not the most coveted. Unlike commercial pilots, who fly the most modern aircraft to exotic destinations, cargo carriers often fly back and forth between cities several times a day, loading and unloading large shipments.

For Lennon, work as a cargo pilot also meant flying in an MU-2, a plane with a spotty safety record.

Lennon became the sixth pilot killed in the 39-year history of Epps, one of many companies contracted by the Federal Reserve to transport canceled checks.

Every weekend, about 200 planes fly check shipments from one Federal Reserve branch to another nationwide. As a contractor, Epps handles about 15 percent of these flights. According to officials with the Federal Reserve, Lennon's plane was carrying about 195,000 checks with an estimated worth of $115 million. Lennon also had mail for the bank on board.

Federal Reserve officials said yesterday that they will try to salvage the checks and process them as normal. If some or all of the checks were destroyed, back-office records will be used to recover the data and process the check amounts.

At the site of the crash in Ferndale yesterday, residents called Lennon a hero, saying that he narrowly avoided hitting a house in the suburban neighborhood. They marveled that the plane caused no injuries or serious damage.

"You have to feel like if the guy had any control of the plane, he knew exactly what he was doing," JoAnn Marshall said. "So many awful things could have happened that didn't."

Sun staff writer Paul Adams contributed to this article.

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