TAMPA — Patti Snyder was a 49-year-old waitress with lung cancer. Her neighbor Tyler McLellan was a 15-year-old kid on summer vacation who loved hip-hop music.
When Snyder needed to fly across the state to undergo intense medical treatment at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, Tyler became her companion for the day. His mother and Snyder were close friends, and his family had been supporting Snyder in her fight to stay alive.
"She asked him to go. No one else could go with her this week," said Tyler's brother, Kevin McLellan. "His friends invited him to go to Orlando instead, but he said, 'No, I have to go help Patti, I promised her.' "
That's how these two people from Stuart ended up on a plane that crashed Thursday at East Tampa's Vandenberg Airport, killing them and pilot Harlan "Lanny" Northcott, a volunteer with the charity Angel Flight.
Northcott, 81, of Sun City Center was a veteran pilot who routinely shuttled patients around Florida for medical appointments. Authorities are investigating why his single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza hit a large antenna on the airport grounds as it was taking off in rainy weather.
A witness who saw the crash while driving on Interstate 75 told investigators the plane went airborne, lifted its landing gear and drifted to the left. Then its right wing clipped the top of a 49-foot antenna. The plane cartwheeled, hit the ground and burst into flames, said Corky Smith, a senior air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
"The pilot has a responsibility to take off and maintain heading. The aircraft was slightly to the left," said Smith. The safety board will be looking at "the man, machine and environment" to determine what caused the crash, he said.
The antenna is between 350 and 550 feet off the runway, according to a Federal Aviation Administration instrument flying handbook.
Smith wouldn't speculate on whether Thursday's stormy weather played a role but said conditions had been appropriate for takeoff.
The investigation could take a year. Investigators walked the crash debris line on Friday, and today they'll examine the plane's engine and airframe.
Northcott had been preparing to return his two passengers to Stuart on Florida's east coast.
Angel Flight pilots donate their time, planes and fuel to carry patients who need specialized health care but can't fly commercially. Some can't afford plane tickets, while others have medical problems; for example, cancer patients might not want to fly in a cramped aircraft because their immune systems are weakened, said Mary Alice Alexander, chief executive of Angel Flight Southeast.
Northcott had been helping out two to three times a month since 2004. He also flew supplies to natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina. "He was just a go-to guy," said the program's director of mission operations, Angel Gamble.
Even through he was 81, he was fit to fly, said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. In August, he passed a mandatory medical exam that checked his vision and balance along with his mental, cardiovascular and neurological health. It's valid for two years, and there's no upper age limit for pilots, she said.
He also was cleared to fly in inclement weather.
Sherman Smith, 78, a flight instructor at Wimauma Airport, didn't know Northcott but doubts age was a factor. With age comes experience, he said, and pilots have their health and skill levels retested regularly.
"If he wasn't sharp, they wouldn't pass him," Smith said.
Tampa pilot Ed Golly, who does volunteer flights for another group, CAIR Flight, was mystified by the crash. He wonders if the pilot could have had a medical problem on takeoff.
"I've taken off out of that airport so many times, and I've never seen any towers I could hit," he said.
Patricia "Patti" Snyder had flown on Angel Flight 26 times. In fact, Northcott flew her on a mission about a week ago.
Snyder and Tyler McLellan's mom, Jill Ellis, were close friends. The neighbors were both waitresses at the Clock Family Restaurant in Stuart.
"She just lived life to its fullest every day. Everyone here cared for her," said manager John Hoffmann.
When Snyder came down with asbestos-related cancer, her friend's family offered help, said Tyler's brother Kevin McLellan, 18, who has also been Snyder's roommate for eight months.
"Before she started using Angel Flight, we used to drive her to Tampa every other week," he said.
Thursday wasn't the first time Tyler had kept Snyder company on one of her flights. But it was the first time he'd done it alone.
"The family had gone out to be with her when she got her news recently, and it was bad news that she had to continue the chemo," said Tyler's aunt Karen Osborn. "She had to go back, and he said, 'I'll be your angel. I'll fly with you, I'll stay with you.' "
Staff writer Andrew Meacham, researcher Will Gorham and Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.