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Landing gear cited in report on Monroe plane crash

Safety board says equipment was up in crash that killed 3

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Investigators examine the wreckage of the plane that crashed at Munson Park in Monroe. The crash killed all three men aboard.

The Blade/Andy Morrison
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MONROE -- The pilot of a small plane that crashed in a city park last month, killing all three people aboard, either failed to lower the landing gear before attempting to land or was unable to do so, a preliminary report released by the National Transportation Safety Board indicates.

Investigators discovered 37 marks in the pavement of Runway 21 at Custer Airport that were "consistent with propeller slash marks," the safety board report states, and "material consistent with material from the airplane propeller was located in the area of the slash marks."

The plane crashed less than a mile from the runway's "departure end," and witnesses told authorities it had attempted to land but then took off again before crashing. And at least one veteran pilot said he believes that based on the findings, the pilot might have been better off retarding the throttle and making a belly landing instead of trying a "go-around."

"The airplane would have been trashed," but everyone on board probably would have walked away, said Eric Barnum, a veteran pilot and owner of Crow Executive Air in Lake Township. Examination of the wreckage revealed the landing gear was retracted and the airplane's wing flaps also were retracted.

Safety board officials do not comment about ongoing investigations, and typically the agency takes more than a year to complete its investigations of crashes like the one on March 29 that killed pilot Rick E. Howell, 58, of LaSalle, Mich., and passengers Nathan Brahier, 30, of Fremont and Jeremy Tate, 40, of Oregon.

But Mr. Barnum said the agency's description of propeller-strike findings makes it clear to him that the Piper Malibu Mirage's landing gear was not down when the plane tried to land.

"It doesn't explain why the gear wasn't down," Mr. Barnum said. But 37 slashes in the runway's pavement represents "a pretty catastrophic propeller strike" that could have severely damaged the plane's engine, he said.

"It's miraculous that he went around in the first place," Mr. Barnum said, referring to Mr. Howell's decision to abort the landing and make a second approach. The retracted flaps are consistent with such an action.

Tracy Bowman, Mr. Howell's daughter, said after the crash that relatives had been led to believe that mechanical failure was to blame for the crash.

The three men were returning home from a business trip in southern Pennsylvania when the plane crashed.

An unidentified witness told investigators that the plane's landing gear was retracted when it flew low and fast over Stewart Road on its approach to the landing attempt.

Radar data indicated an airspeed of 132 knots, or about 152 mph, when the plane was a half-mile out from the runway, at an altitude of 800 feet.

Mr. Barnum said airplanes have warning systems that should activate when a landing attempt is made without the landing gear deployed. So investigators will have to determine, he said, if there was a problem with the landing gear or the warning system as part of identifying the crash's cause.

At a typical engine-idle speed of 1,500 revolutions per minute, it would have taken the airplane's propeller less than one second to strike the runway 37 times.

The plane crashed near a soccer goal and a beach volleyball court at Munson Park, a short distance southeast of the runway's south end. No one on the ground was hurt.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.

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