Pilot critically hurt in Arundel plane crash

July 12, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

A small, privately owned airplane crashed in a soybean field yesterday morning, critically injuring the pilot as he attempted a landing at Lee Airport near Edgewater and scattering parts in a residential neighborhood as the aircraft hit several trees.

The pilot and lone occupant, Ralph Dilks, 64, of Cape May, N.J., was pulled unconscious from the wreckage by several area residents who heard the crash shortly before 10 a.m. Witnesses said Dilks had serious head injuries from the impact, which left the cockpit obliterated.

Dilks had flown from Ocean City, N.J., planning to pick up his brother and another person at Lee Airport and fly them back to join Dilks' mother for lunch, said Ted Coleman, who keeps his plane at Lee Airport and was standing with the other two people when the crash occurred out of their view.

Dilks was flying his brother's plane, which authorities identified as a single-engine, four-seat Cirrus.

Dilks has had a pilot's license since 1988, said Jeff Guzzetti, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator who was at the scene -- experienced enough to be instrument-rated, allowed to fly in poor weather. Conditions were hot and humid, but no unusual weather pattern was immediately apparent, Guzzetti said.

Witnesses said the pilot tried to land on the runway but was coming in "high and hot" -- or too high and too fast, Guzzetti said. Dilks made an initial attempt to land but was still aloft as the plane passed the halfway point on the runway and began to climb, bank to the left and loop over a suburban neighborhood, Guzzetti said from witness accounts.

As it flew over the homes, the plane lost altitude and cut a swath through a stand of tall trees as it descended. The plane never touched the runway, Guzzetti said.

Dave Turner, a mechanic at the airport, heard the crash and rushed over with a fire extinguisher. "It hit a tree and knocked the engine off. We were afraid the prop had hit his head."

The plane's engine was bent, both wings were fractured, and parts of the tail were cut off.

The plane did not catch fire. After the crash, fuel leaked onto the soybean field, suggesting that the plane's tanks were not empty, Guzzetti said. There was also no evidence of an "in-flight breakup," he said -- although parts of the airplane were scattered around nearby homes. One flat panel hung in a tree yards from a backyard play set.

"It was close, no question about it," said John McCoy, who lives in a home about 100 yards from the crash site. Several tree branches on his property were severed as the plane neared the ground.

One witness, an airplane mechanic, told the NTSB investigator that the engine didn't appear to be at full throttle.

The plane -- an SR22 model made by Cirrus Aircraft in Duluth, Minn. -- was manufactured in 2003. It costs about $350,000, according to the company's Web site.

Cirrus promotes itself as a company that believes "nothing is more important than your safety," according to its Web site. All of its planes are equipped with a 55-foot-diameter parachute that allows the plane to float to the ground when the parachute is deployed, according to the Web site. But there was no evidence that the parachute had been activated, Guzzetti said.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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