Finding crash cause may take year, says NTSB

Ferndale residents praise pilot for not striking homes

May 16, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Sifting through the debris of a cargo plane that crashed Friday near Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- killing its pilot and narrowly missing a house -- officials with the National Safety Transportation Board said yesterday that it could be a year before they can determine the cause of the accident.

Paul Cox, an air safety investigator for the NTSB, said that because the plane had no "black box" -- or flight data recorder -- studying the crash will be a lengthy, involved process.

"We'll complete the on-scene investigation today," Cox said. "But then we've got to examine several other factors, like the pilot's training records and the maintenance records of the plane."

Cox and his team of six NTSB workers spent the last two days examining the mangled parts of the Mitsubishi MU-2 plane, which plummeted from the sky early Friday morning, smashing into the front yard of a home in the leafy suburb of Ferndale.

While they worked, a crowd of onlookers gathered on the street behind crime-scene tape cordoning off the area. Many of them were Ferndale residents who expressed gratitude that the plane's pilot, Thomas F. Lennon, 34, was able to steer his plunging plane away from the neighborhood's homes.

"It's a miracle that he didn't hit anything else," said Carolyn Parrish, who brought her 9-year-old grandson to witness the removal of the wreckage. "I wanted him to see that this happened and only one person got hurt -- it's amazing. I think the pilot is a real hero."

Reached by telephone yesterday evening at their home in Pennsylvania, members of Lennon's family -- still stunned by the news of his death -- said they were not surprised to hear that the pilot managed to control his plane as it fell.

"To sum it up, that's the type of person he was," said Lennon's uncle, Noah Goldman. "He probably had a feeling he was doomed -- but figuring that he didn't want to hurt anyone else, he maneuvered the plane."

Goldman added: "He was a very kindhearted, good-natured person. If you needed help, he was there."

Friends and family gathered at Lennon's home in Drexel Hill, Pa., yesterday to mourn his loss, sharing stories about what they said was his passion for flying. He is survived by his wife of two years, Lara, his mother and four older sisters.

Goldman said that as a young pilot, Lennon used to pay cargo companies to allow him to fly freight operations so he could gain experience in the air. Even though he lost his job as a commercial pilot with US Airways after Sept. 11, 2001, when the company laid off 11,000 workers, Lennon remained enthusiastic about his chosen career.

Shortly after he left the airline, he returned to Epps Aviation, an Atlanta-based company that transports canceled checks and other financial documents for Northeast banks. He previously worked at Epps for three years.

"He enjoyed it because he was in the air," said Goldman, who once flew with his nephew in his MU-2 aircraft. "It didn't matter what he was doing as long as he was flying."

John Theune, a Maryland pilot whose plane crashed on New Year's Day 2002 on route to Atlanta, stopped by the Ferndale site to speak with an NTSB officer working on the investigation of his accident. Gazing at the tangled mess of metal lying on the neatly manicured lawn, Theune echoed the sentiments of others who hailed Lennon for his skill and courage.

"I don't know what happened, but I can tell you it's incredible that he put his plane down in a neighborhood like this, guiding it to avoid hitting anything," Theune said. "It's easy to panic when you're about to crash, but it seems to me that he remained calm enough to steer this plane all the way to the ground."

Ferndale residents said although they are still reeling from the fiery crash, the accident has not made them nervous about living so close to an airport.

"This is rare," said Sharon Henn, who lives directly across from where the plane came down.

The Rev. Susan E. Duchesneau, pastor of Ferndale United Methodist Church, a block from where the plane crashed, said she will address the accident during the "joys and concerns" portion of her service today.

While Duchesneau said she will remind her congregation not to be afraid of the planes that continuously roar overhead, she will also ask them to pray for the family of Thomas Lennon.

"I keep hearing reports and people saying, `Thank God only one person was killed,'" she said. "But it's likely that the pilot diverted that plane to save lives. He's had a great impact on this small community."

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