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Published: 4/1/2011

Plane in Monroe crash may have tried to land at Custer field

Pilot sought contact with airport official

BY MARK REITER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

MONROE -- The pilot of the airplane that crashed in a city park may have attempted to land the aircraft at Custer Airport just moments before the fatal accident, airport officials said.

Rick E. Howell, the pilot and owner of a Toledo auto parts manufacturing business, had descended as though he was going to land the single-engine plane on the airport's runway Tuesday but then powered up, continuing south in the air, Jerry Delaney, the airport's assistant manager, said Thursday.

As he was taking the aircraft back up, Mr. Howell, 58, told the radio operator to get Mr. Delaney on the radio so he could talk to him.

"By the time I got up to the radio and started to call to him through the radio, that is when I saw there had been an impact in the park," Mr. Delaney said.

Mr. Howell, a licensed pilot for seven years and owner of the six-passenger Piper Malibu Mirage, banked the plane over the River Raisin and went northeast over Munson Park, narrowly avoiding tennis courts and a playground before crashing into a soccer field, where it burst into flames.

Killed on impact were Mr. Howell and his passengers, Jeremy Tate, 40, and Nathan Brahier, 30, both employees of Mr. Howell's company, Conforming Matrix Corp.

Mr. Delaney, who is a flight instructor, said he doesn't know why Mr. Howell wanted him on the radio, and it would be pure speculation to conclude that he was having engine or mechanical problems.

"We won't know until the [National Transportation Safety Board] is done with their investigation," he said. "You can have any number of problems. Why he would have called on the radio that there was something he needed to talk to me about is 100 percent speculation because we don't have any information from the crash-site investigator."

He said the pilot had put fuel in the plane's tanks before leaving earlier Tuesday on a business trip to the Bedford, Pa., airport. The plane did not get fuel while there.

Mr. Delaney said he didn't believe that the aircraft ran out of fuel because the plane exploded in flames when it crashed. "Obviously fuel wasn't an issue," he said.

The NTSB investigation, which includes a review of the plane's recent flight history and eyewitness accounts of people who were on the ground, could take about a year to complete.

Mr. Delaney said that Mr. Howell may not have been attempting to land the plane but instead may have been practicing a procedure in aviation that is called a "touch and go".

"That is really nothing unusual. It is something pilots, even the most experienced, do for training. After a pilot gets a license he tries to stay sharp and may practice of series of touch-and-goes," he said.

Mr. Howell's family has established a memorial fund to collect donations to establish permanent monuments honoring the crash victims in front of Conforming Matrix on Suder Avenue and possibly at the accident site in Munson Park if the city grants permission. An account for the fund has been established at Fifth Third Bank. Services for Mr. Howell, who lived in LaSalle, Mich., are tentatively set for Monday. The Bennett Funeral Home in Monroe is handling arrangements.

Mr. Howell grew up in Oregon and attended Clay High School, his stepson, Ron Riehle, said. He did two tours in Vietnam, one with the Marines and the other with the Air Force.

Services for Mr. Tate, who lived in Oregon with his wife and children, will be Saturday at Vineyard Church in Perrysburg. Visitation begins at 2 p.m. today in the Eggleston Meinert and Pavley Funeral Home in Oregon.

Services for Mr. Brahier will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at Grace Lutheran Church in Fremont. Visitation will begin at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Herman-Kinn-Karlovetz Funeral Home.

Contact Mark Reiter at: markreiter@theblade.com or 419-724-6199.



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