A small, single engine plane headed to an air festival in Lakeland, Fla., from Amherst, N.Y., crashed into a wooded area along Larry Jeffers Road near Elgin just before 2 p.m. Friday, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Amherst is part of the greater Buffalo, N.Y., metropolitan area.
The as yet unidentified pilot, who was killed in the crash, was apparently heading to Lakeland’s SUN ’n FUN Fly-In, NTSB Public Affairs Officer Peter Knudson said during a phone call Saturday afternoon. The fly-in is scheduled to begin Tuesday, with pre-flight night activities set for tonight, according to the festival’s website.
“No flight plan was filed and none was required,” Knudson said. “There was no indication of any distress call, but we will look to see if there was any communication.”
The plane -- which Knudson described as a single-engine, two person fabric fixed wing Piper PA-20 -- crashed near the intersection of White Pond Road and I-20.
A fire followed the crash, scorching a radius of about 50 feet around it and burning the plane all the way to its frame, leaving officials no way to immediately identify the aircraft. Knudson and Kathleen Bergen, Southern Region Public Affairs Officer for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) both provided the plane’s registration number, N7746K. However, neither Knudson nor Bergen knew exactly how that number was obtained.
“I don’t know how that was determined in this case. Aircraft have data plates and various parts like the engine have serial numbers,” Bergen said in an email Saturday evening.
A check of the registry number on the FAA’s website showed that number coming back to a Piper PA-20 such as the one Knudson described. The registered owner was listed as Buergel Wolfgang, of East Aurora, N.Y., about 30 miles southeast of Amherst and Buffalo. However, neither Knudson, Berger or Kershaw County Coroner Johnny Fellers identified Wolfgang as the pilot.
“We have no idea if the person is male or female,” Fellers said at the scene Friday afternoon, stating that the body was unrecognizable. “We found no ID, but we are taking the body for autopsy to start the process of identification.”
During an exchange of text messages Saturday, Fellers said that process has included a request for dental records.
“I have requested some dental records from up north on a subject I believe was in the plane,” Fellers said.
Those records should be delivered today, based on one of Fellers’ text messages, in which he also listed the official cause of death as blunt force trauma due to the plane crash.
The pilot’s body was said to have been burned beyond recognition.
Fellers said there was a chance he may add burns and smoke inhalation to the cause of death, but that he still needed to finalize carbon dioxide levels in the victim’s lungs before making a determination. An autopsy was performed Saturday morning in Newberry where many victims of violent crimes and accidents are sent.
The FAA’s online information on the plane indicated that its certificate issue date was May 22, 1972, with an expiration set for September 30 of this year. The plane was apparently manufactured in 1950. The engine was listed as a Lycoming 0-290 series with an air worthiness date of Oct. 18, 1955.
There are as yet no indications whether the plane had been maintained as originally manufactured 61 years ago or was a restoration. The C-I has requested paper records because the FAA noted that online records may not be up to date.
Witnesses at the scene said the plane seemed to be in trouble as it went overhead, circling around and then possibly flipping over before crashing nearly straight down to the ground.
“I was turning into Tall Pines off White Pond Road when I saw it,” said Tim Sharpe who lives in the subdivision about 1-1/2 miles away. “I saw it for two seconds as it flipped upside down and then saw it go down. I didn’t see it come back up.”
Jack Bell, owner of J. Bell Body Shop on nearby Kirkland Circle north of the crash site off White Pond Road, said he and a customer, Kevin Hester, of Blythewood, were two of the first people at the scene.
“We heard it and then saw it flying above us,” said Bell. “It was going up and down and I thought maybe it was doing a stunt.”
Bell said he knew that wasn’t the case when, a moment later, the plane went straight up and then started going down.
“It hit the ground and we started heading over and heard an explosion. We were hoping the pilot had jumped out,” Bell said.
Hester said they heard a thud after seeing the plane go down.
“Within five seconds we heard a separate, totally distinctive explosion and there was a ball of fire,” Hester said.
He and Bell said when they got to the scene about three minutes later, they could see the propeller separated from the rest of the plane.
The aircraft crashed in a small wooded area just past a Fairfield Electric substation. An unidentified member of WeylChem’s fire brigade said they were asked to go to the scene because of the plant’s proximity to the crash site. The company owns a large swath of land bordered by Larry Jeffers and White Pond roads and I-20, according to online mapping available through the Kershaw County Assessor’s Office.
Late in the afternoon, cows were briefly seen grazing on a field next to the crash site. There are also several homes fairly close by, including the Heath Pond subdivision.
The scene was blocked off by two sets of security tape. One set ringed the crash site while the other served as a line for the public not to cross along Larry Jeffers Road.
An unidentified man said his brother-in-law lives nearby, saw the crash and was the first on the scene.
“He said it circled one time, spittin’ and sputterin’,” the man said. “My brother said it looked like it was trying to get to the field behind the substation, but it took a nose dive, hit a pecan tree and hit the ground.
“He said it was just a ball of fire.”
Numerous S.C. Highway Patrol troopers and Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office deputies were at the scene for most of the afternoon along with Sheriff Jim Matthews. Kershaw County Fire Marshall Gene Faulkenberry said about 15 firefighters from Doby’s Mill and Blaney fire departments responded to the crash.
“They had the fire out by the time I got here,” said Faulkenberry.
Nearly everyone had left the scene by 5 p.m. Friday. A lone sheriff’s investigator stayed behind to guard what remained of the plane, the tail’s frame sticking up at a steep angle out of a blackened ring of debris.
The FAA and NTSB began examining the scene Saturday morning.