For four years, Tom Ratliff had one favorite conversation piece: his silver airplane.
He built it rivet by rivet in a shed near his Salisbury home. When he didn't have a tool, he would fashion one himself. And when people came to visit, they could count on getting an update on the progress that the retired NASA engineer was making on the homemade airplane.
"He was talking about it all time," said his wife, Becky. "He built it from sheets of aluminum. Every rivet he put in himself."
On Tuesday, the 80-year-old Ratliff invited four friends - two with video cameras - to a tiny private airfield near Pittsville, where they expected to watch him fly his Hummel Bird about 10 feet off the ground. But after taxiing his plane down the runway, Ratliff, to his friends' surprise, took the plane for its first flight.
The plane wobbled as it climbed to an altitude of 150 feet - about 15 stories, said Michael Gray, a flying buddy who witnessed the flight.
But then the plane banked to the right and the engine stalled, causing the plane to flip over and smash nose-first into a nearby cornfield, Gray said.
The flight lasted about 30 seconds. Ratliff died of the injuries he suffered. The crash is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. Friends and family will gather for a memorial service today in Salisbury.
"He always loved to fly," Becky Ratliff, 66, said. "He'd say, `I'm like a child. It is just so exciting.' " She paused and added: "He died doing what he loved."
Becky Ratliff remembers her husband of 17 years as someone who maintained a passion for life. "In his heart he wasn't 80," she said.
The couple had three trips planned - a biking tour though Connecticut and Block Island, a kayaking and horseback-riding trip to California and a quick jaunt to Argentina in January.
"That was Tom's nature, I've never done some much in my whole life as I did after meeting him," Becky Ratliff said.
In the winter he skied. He had been windsurfing a few weeks ago. The couple regularly went ballroom dancing. He played bridge.
He often looked for an excuse - even a silly excuse - just to go up into the air. "We would fly to Cambridge for a doughnut," Becky Ratliff said.
Born in Bluefield, W. Va., Ratliff had a lifelong obsession with airplanes. The first six pages of an early scrapbook are covered with images of airplanes.
But flying didn't come naturally to him. After high school, he unsuccessfully applied to be a pilot for the Army in what was a predecessor to today's Air Force. He endured violent bouts of airsickness, and he couldn't fly for the Army, said his daughter, Kim Rawley of Severna Park. Instead, he spent World War II as a radio mechanic in the Army Air Corps.
On the GI Bill of Rights, Ratliff earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech.
And throughout his career he stayed close to flight - developing jet engines that could start at high altitudes and anti-missile weapons systems for Westinghouse Electric Corp.
In 1961, he landed a job at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. A few years later, Ratliff took flying lessons at the University of Maryland/College Park.
He'd fly with his family "pretty much every weekend, as much as weather allowed and his time allowed," Rawley said of her father, who became a consultant after retiring from NASA. Becky, Ratliff's second wife, settled with him on the Eastern Shore in the mid-1980s.
Recreational flying is becoming more and more popular, said David Berkley, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisc.
And, he said, more and more people are building their own planes - called "home-built experimental" planes by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Ratliff's death came soon after two planes collided and crashed near Cape Henlopen State Park, killing both pilots.
The Hummel Bird - which Ratliff built - is tricky to make, said Michael C. Kuhnert, an instructor at Hummel Aviation in Virginia (no connection to the Hummel plane).
"You need to be pretty good with metal in order to construct one," he said.
The designer of the plane, Morry Hummel, 90, disagrees. He says the plane was designed to be easy to construct and cheap to make - the plans sell for $250. "It is very nimble, easy to fly, the wind don't bother it a whole lot," Hummel said. "It is more or less a poor man's airplane."
Fifty-six Hummel Birds are registered with the FAA, according to the federal agency's database, with Ratliff's as the only one listed in Maryland. There have been three, possibly four, accidents or incidents involving Hummels since 1962, according to the NTSB's online database.
Last year, there were 49 accidents involving amateur-built planes, none in Maryland.
Only one person could squeeze into the cockpit of Ratliff's plane. The pilot's legs straddle the steering stick. The plane is so light that two people can carry it.
On Tuesday, Gray recalled, he didn't expect to see his friend fly.
Gray worried as he watched the tiny plane climb higher and higher. It didn't look very steady. "He started to drift to the right, and the wing dropped," Gray said. Then it spun, rotated and flipped over.
Ratliff's daughter, though grieving the sudden death of her father, said he was probably happy when he died.
"He's flown a bunch of aircraft, but never one he built himself," Rawley said. "I know he was smiling. I know he must have been thrilled that it flew. And I find peace in that."
Sun staff writer Andrea F. Siegel and researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.