Witness, officials: Plane's victim likely unaware of approaching danger

March 16, 2010 

The Lancair IV-P that crashed landed on the beach at Palmetto Dunes on Monday evening is hoisted into the air Tuesday afternoon. The plane was loaded on a flatbed trailer. A Georgia man was struck and killed by the plane as he jogged on the beach Monday.

JAY KARR/THE ISLAND PACKET

  • Flight records show the plane left Orlando Executive Airport at 4:45 p.m. Monday and was scheduled to arrive at Hampton Roads, Va., Executive Airport at 7:38 p.m. Earlier in the day, the plane had flown from Hampton Roads to Orlando Executive, departing at 6:55 a.m. and arriving in Florida at about 9:30 a.m.

A 38-year-old Georgia man struck from behind and killed when a small plane made an emergency landing on a Hilton Head Island beach Monday had been running and listening to his iPod -- probably unaware that the plane was bearing down on him, witnesses and officials said Tuesday.

Robert Gary Jones, a pharmaceutical sales representative from Woodstock, Ga., had been on Hilton Head for business, the victim's neighbor said.

Jones probably didn't see or hear the plane descending toward him -- it made no noise because its engine had failed and he was wearing headphones, officials from the Beaufort County Coroner's Office said.

The single-engine airplane made an emergency landing near Palmetto Dunes at about 6:10 p.m. Monday. The pilot was Edward Smith, 62, of Chesapeake, Va., according to a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office report released Tuesday. Smith built the plane last year, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration said.

A passenger in the plane was identified as David Henry, 59, also of Chesapeake, a sheriff's spokeswoman said.

Neither Smith nor Henry was injured in the landing.

Kay Gonzales and her husband, vacationing on Hilton Head from Huntsville, Ala., were among the witnesses who reported the incident Monday.

"He (Jones) never saw it, never heard it and never knew what hit him," Gonzales said. "He had music in his ears. He never looked back."

The couple had been walking south on the beach behind Jones when the plane came down.

They had seen the low-flying aircraft coming toward them, but initially thought it was a stunt or advertising plane, Gonzales said. They realized there was a problem when they saw the plane coming straight toward them, quickly losing altitude and steering erratically.

"It was going back and forth and up and down," Gonzales said.

She and husband Joseph panicked, unsure where to run.

Joseph Gonzales fell to the ground.

Kay Gonzales ran toward the ocean.

The plane flew "just a few feet over our heads," she said.

One of its landing gear appeared to strike the back of Jones' head, she said. The Coroner's Office said preliminary autopsy results show that Jones died of blunt force trauma to the head and neck.

THE VICTIM

Gonzales and other witnesses said several people rushed to Jones' aid, attempting to administer CPR, but he was already dead.

The victim's neighbor in Woodstock, who asked not to be identified, said Jones was a loving family man who leaves a wife, a 5-year-old son and a daughter whose third birthday was Tuesday. He traveled frequently for his work, according to the neighbor. He'd been employed by GlaxoSmithKline since 1997, according to an online business profile.

"He loved his family. He loved the beach. He loved being fit," according to the neighbor, who played golf with Jones. "The way the accident happened is just unbelievable. ... Everyone's still trying to get a handle on reality."

A man who answered the phone at Jones' mother's home in Clearwater, Fla., said Jones planned to return to Woodstock today for his daughter's birthday party.

INVESTIGATION BEGINS

The plane, which was heading for Hampton Roads, Va., Executive Airport, experienced engine trouble over the water about an hour and a half after leaving Orlando Executive Airport in Florida, according to Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the FAA's Atlanta regional office. The aircraft was flying at about 13,000 feet when air traffic controllers at the Marine Corps Approach Control Center in Beaufort told Smith, the pilot, to land at the Hilton Head airport.

But oil began leaking out of the engine and smeared onto the plane's windshield before Smith and Henry reached the island, according to a spokeswoman from the Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division.

The plane's propeller came off, and the men decided to make an emergency landing on the beach, though the oil on the windshield blocked their view, she said.

The plane touched down north of the Hilton Head Marriott Resort and Spa at Palmetto Dunes, near Armada Street, about three miles from the island's airport.

On Monday, Smith and Henry were taken to the Sheriff's Office, the Fire & Rescue spokeswoman said. They stayed in the area Tuesday to speak to investigators.

The plane -- a fixed-wing Lancair IV-P -- is registered to Smith, who built it from a kit last year, according to the FAA.

Bergen said pilot-built planes must undergo FAA safety inspections. Officials inspect the planes while they're being constructed and grant certificates after they're complete.

"It's very common. There are many aviation enthusiasts who build their own planes from kits," she said.

The National Transportation Safety Board will determine the cause of the crash and whether there may be broader safety concerns with the aircraft, Bergen said.

Investigators from the NTSB and the FAA removed the plane from the beach Tuesday as a crowd watched from behind yellow crime-scene tape and took photos. Officials used a backhoe to hoist the plane onto a flat-bed truck, where they dismantled it and drained the fuel.

The plane was taken to Virginia on Tuesday for the investigation, according to NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway. That investigation could take up to 18 months, he said.

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