TAMPA — For 20 years, pilot Harlan "Lanny" Northcott shuttled patients across the country for medical appointments.
His single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza was his pride and joy, and he didn't mind using it to serve others.
Northcott, 81, of Sun City Center died Thursday doing just that. His plane crashed and burned at East Tampa's Vandenberg Airport, killing him and two passengers.
"All I can say at this point is he was doing what he liked to be doing, and he was helping people," said son Glenn Northcott, 39, of Houston, a pilot for Continental Airlines who flew into Tampa with his children Thursday to spend time with his father.
Authorities said Patricia Snyder, 49, and a family friend, Tyler McClellan, 15, both of Stuart, were onboard. She was being flown home after receiving medical treatment in Tampa when the plane may have hit a tower on takeoff, sheriff's officials said.
Glenn Northcott said his father was transporting a cancer patient and had learned two months ago that he himself had prostate cancer.
"It's very unfortunate that they were involved," he said. "My heart goes out to the other families. I get chills even trying to think about what they're going through right now."
Joe Remelius, who lives in Stuart across the street from McClellan, said the teenager was accompanying his mother's friend on the flight.
"He was bored and didn't have anything to do on summer vacation," he said, "and she could take someone with her so she did."
Remelius called Tyler a respectful teen who watched his sister in the front yard and loved motorcycles and playing basketball with his stepfather in the driveway.
"He was a good-natured kid," Remelius said.
Lanny Northcott intended to fly to Witham Field in Stuart, on Florida's east coast, then be back to pick up his son and grandchildren from Tampa International Airport by 6:30 p.m. The plans were made earlier in the day when Glenn Northcott's daughter asked to fly from their home in Houston to have dinner with her "Pa Pa."
Instead, Glenn Northcott stepped out of a cab onto the front entrance of the Vandenberg Airport and broke down crying.
Hillsborough Fire Rescue Capt. Bruce Delk said emergency crews responded at 3:27 p.m. to a 911 call that a plane had gone down and caught fire upon takeoff. The first rescue personnel on the scene found the craft about 100 feet off the runway, burning, with one person visible inside.
Northcott had radioed for takeoff clearance six minutes earlier, Delk said.
Bill Shivers, wing leader for the Tampa Bay Area Angel Flight program, said Lanny Northcott was on an Angel Flight mission, in which pilots donate their time, planes and fuel to carry ambulatory patients to treatment.
Vandenberg Airport is on a triangular parcel bordered by Interstate 75, Interstate 4 and U.S. 301.
Mary Keen, 44, lives across the Tampa Bypass Canal, her house facing the airport. She said she heard an explosion in the middle of a fierce lightning storm.
"It sounded like it happened right behind our house," she said. "It went, bam! It gives me cold chills because it scared me so bad I screamed."
Light to moderate rain was falling at the airport about the time of the crash, said Mike Cantin, National Weather Service meteorologist. Several instances of lightning occurred about 3 p.m. near the airport, Cantin said, but there appeared to be no cloud-to-ground lightning at the time of the crash. Winds were between calm and 7 mph just before the crash and just after it, Cantin said.
The Federal Aviation Authority and National Transportation Safety Board will consider the weather in its investigations.
Delk said special dry foam was used to bring the blaze under control.
Rescue personnel found three people in the plane dead.
Delk said it appeared that the front of the fuselage caught fire first. A wing landed 25 feet away, he said. A propeller landed about 50 feet away.
"At this point, it's entirely too early to speculate" on a cause, Glenn Northcott said, adding that his father was "extremely meticulous about his airplane" and took training courses several times a year.
Lanny Northcott had been a pilot since 1976.
In the mid 1980s, he served as president and chief executive officer of a New Orleans oil and gas company, according to the Oil & Gas Journal. He moved to Florida to retire.
Members of the Northcott family who gathered at his home declined to comment. Neighbors said Northcott was known for throwing old-fashioned, wholesome parties in his retirement community, especially during the Super Bowl.
Glenn Northcott smiled when he thought about the March ski trip he and his family took with his dad to Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border. Then tears overcame his smile as he recalled the last conversation they had by phone Thursday morning.
"The last thing he said," Glenn Northcott began, "and I remember it clearly, was, 'Oh good. I'm so excited. I can't wait to see you.'"
Times researcher Will Gorham and staff writer Abbie VanSickle contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.