The pilot killed when his Piper PA-20 crashed in Elgin early Friday afternoon has been positively identified as Wolfgang Buergel, 71, of East Aurora, N.Y., a rural community located about 15 to 20 miles southeast of Buffalo, N.Y.
Kershaw County Coroner Johnny Fellers confirmed Buergel’s identity after a Newberry forensic examiner matched Buergel’s remains to dental records received Tuesday from New York.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed Saturday that the plane belonged to Buergel, but did not know at the time if he was piloting the craft. NTSB Public Affairs Officer Peter Knudson said the Piper had apparently departed from Amherst, N.Y., located just northeast of Buffalo. Knudson had said the plane was headed to a Lakeland, Fla., air festival which was scheduled to begin Tuesday.
Knudson and FAA Southern Region Public Affairs Officer Kathleen Bergen both said no flight plan was filed -- something that is neither required nor uncommon for small craft.
Buergel’s plane crashed in a small wooded area just off Larry Jeffers Road near Elgin, not far from the I-20 White Pond Road exit. Witnesses at the scene reported they could hear the plane’s engine spitting and sputtering and seeing the plane flying erratically before flipping over and crashing. Several witnesses also reported hearing an explosion immediately after the plane crashed. Officials said fire destroyed the fabric exterior of the plane all the way down to the frame, making immediate identification difficult.
Fellers said Buergel died from blunt force trauma suffered in the crash; further forensic tests will have to be concluded to determine if the fire contributed to his death.
A search of Buergel’s name on the Internet revealed he was known as “The Country Pilot.” A website by that name last updated by Buergel in April 2006 indicated he conducted tailwheel flight training from a private airstrip called Bloecher Farm Airport. On the website, he listed a Piper PA-20 Pacer as one of the available planes on which to train, among others, all appearing to be fixed single-wing planes or bi-planes. Other websites connected to the aviation industry indicated Buergel owned more than a dozen of such craft.
In April 2009, Buergel was the subject of an article in Plane & Pilot/Pilot Journal magazine. Reporter James Wynbrandt wrote that Buergel “cultivat(ed) the art, science and joy of simple stick and rudder flying. He’s even apt to begin sentences with ‘I’m just a country pilot…’”
Buergel described himself and his fellow pilots as “just sport flyers.”
Wynbrandt wrote that Buergel was someone who could “fix, build and fly an airplane” and could “take a student from primary training through aerobatics, or repair just about anything from a J-3 Cub to a Boeing 737.”
Students who had trained under Buergel told Wyndbrandt he was probably the “best pilot (they) ever met.” One called him “something of a legend.”
The article identified Buergel as a native of Germany who settled in America with his family as a teenager in the mid-1950s. They first lived on Long Island where his father worked at Grumman building airplanes.
“Already infatuated with aviation, following high school, he joined the army, learning helicopter maintenance and earning his pilot’s license at the base flying club,” Wynbrandt wrote.
Buergel reportedly moved to the Buffalo area with his wife after being discharged.
Of special note in the article is Buergel’s description of a Piper PA-20 Pacer, perhaps the very plane he died in Friday.
“This was a basket case -- literally: bushel baskets and boxes of parts,” Buergel told Wynbrandt. “It had kind of a bad history: it crashed the first year of its life, and by the time it was four or five years old, a hangar collapsed on it. I’m the sucker who finally took it home.”
The FAA’s online information about the Piper PA-20 Pacer that crashed indicated it was manufactured in 1950; its Lycoming engine was listed as a 0-290 series with an air worthiness date of 1955.
In the Plane & Pilot/Pilot Journal article, Buergel did indicate it was the plane he would fly whenever he would “go somewhere” and talked about using it to go to the Sun ‘n Fun fly-in in Lakeland.
Wynbrandt indicated in the article that Buergel was a former Sportsman-level aerobatics competitor, but that Buergel claimed he did not perform “radical routines,” but rather “slow rolls and snap rolls and verticals and loops.”
In a 2006 article in another publication, Vintage Airplane, Buergel indicated he was able to fly from East Aurora to Lakeland in about eight hours, thanks to a tailwind. He also indicated he had owned the Pacer for 37 years, which would date back to 1969.
Those who knew or knew of Buergel were mentioning him on The Piper Forum, an online message board for discussion of Piper aircraft.
One man from western New York said Buergel “went west,” a term meaning he had died in an accident. The man, identified as “magman” on the forum said, “Wolf was unique in many ways. Probably one of the few A & P (IA)’s to also have a PhD” and referred people to Wynbrandt’s article.
Another person, identified as “Leigh,” said they would have thought Buergel -- “a reasonably skilled pilot” -- would have been able to land and walk away. “Something more than an engine problem must have been involved,” they wrote.
Exactly what happened won’t be known for some time. The NTSB’s Knudson said it can take up to a year or longer for a crash investigation to be completed.
Knudson did say, however, that a preliminary report should be up on the NTSB’s website within 10 working days of the crash, which would be April 8.