by: Kevin McCarty Updated:
BUCKLEY, Wash. - The NTSB is investigating how two very experienced, retired commercial pilots died within one mile of takeoff in Pierce County.
The crash happened about 3:30 p.m. in a wooded area near the 9200 block of Avenue East. The plane was a World War II-era aircraft, a two-passenger model SNJ-4, authorities said.
Fritzz Bright spoke to his neighbor, Jim Cawley, about the plane that morning. "He was excited about it, very excited," Bright said. Cawley was buying it from another neighbor, Rodney Richardson, a man in his 70s.
The two took off from an airfield that runs right through the community. Bright could see them from his backyard and they took off. About a quarter mile into their flight, Bright could hear that something was wrong. "It was missing and cutting out and missing and cutting out really bad."
“It was sputtering, “ said eyewitness Scott Moody. “He was trying to make a big turn, trying to get back to an airstrip on the other side here and it went down really fast. I heard a big crash. It was nasty.”
The plane barely cleared the trees on Elonie DeCristofaro's home. She could hear the sputtering also. DeCristofaro thought it might plunge into her home. Instead, she saw it appear to turn back toward the airstrip and then go down in a thick, wooded area. "We heard trees snapping," she said from her front yard, "and it just sounded like a whole bunch of stuff being mowed down."
Josh Bentley, who lives down the road from the crash scene, also saw the plane suddenly go down.
“I think he was trying to pull around to the field and he just didn’t have the altitude,” said Bentley. “I lost him in the trees right there.”
Several people in the area said they had seen the plane and its pilot before. Investigators said they were identified quickly after the crash.
“We know who they are, we’re not releasing their names yet,” said Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Detective Ed Troyer
Officials with East Pierce Fire and Rescue said the plane went down in a heavily wooded area surrounded by fields west of Buckley. The impact tore both wings from the plane’s fuselage. There was no fire.
The NTSB will be in the woods Thursday morning, trying to gather all the pieces of the plane. They say it's rough because the woods are so thick that visibility is only about three feet. They expect to pull most of the plane out by early Thursday afternoon.
Mr. Bright says the two men were both very experienced, and he has no doubt that it was a mechanical problem. But that provides little comfort. He had to go and tell Richardson's wife -- that her husband was killed in the crash. "It was just just the saddest thing. She was so sad and so broken up. It was just terrible."