Friday, December 15, 2017
Public safety

Two ultralight pilots die in Pasco, Hernando crashes

Three hours and 12 miles apart Sunday, two pilots each climbed into their single-seat ultralight planes. They taxied down the runways and took off into the air. And both came crashing down.

In Pasco and Hernando counties, two pilots died in separate incidents, authorities said.

About 8:30 a.m., a beginner ultralight pilot practiced "crow hops" at Pilot Country Airport, north of Land O'Lakes. Somewhere in the series of short takeoffs and landings, the ultralight lifted into the air. Flying too low, it snagged power lines along State Road 52.

The crash killed the pilot, 53-year-old William George Athey of Odessa, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office said.

Around 11:30 a.m., another ultralight took off from the Hernando County Airport. Climbing to 200 feet, the aircraft appeared to stall. It spiraled downward and burst into flames when it hit the ground, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office said.

The pilot was identified Sunday night as Christopher Ambrose Washington, 50, of Spring Hill. He died at the scene.

Ultralights fly slow and low. They're planes for hobby aviators, sightseers and dreamers who want to soar.

For all forms of flying, pilot error is the leading cause of crashes, said Roy Beisswenger, a board member of the U.S. Ultralight Association. He said ultralights can be safer than other planes because they're lighter and slower, maxing out at 55 mph.

Ultralight fatalities are unusual, he said — the most recent in the Tampa Bay area was in June in Plant City — so the two deaths Sunday shocked him.

Unlike larger planes, ultralights and their pilots do not receive certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, Beisswenger said. Left to regulate themselves, ultralight pilots tend to approach flight with an abundance of caution, he said.

"It's really one of the last freedoms in America," he said.

• • •

The victims of Sunday's crashes had one thing in common beyond an interest in aviation — a desire to volunteer with children.

Washington liked to introduce kids to aviation, according to Bernie Berger, former president of Experimental Aircraft Association's Brooksville chapter. Washington was the chapter's secretary for a year.

Washington volunteered with All Pro Dads of South Brooksville, Berger said, and once arranged for a group of disadvantaged kids to tour Hernando County Airport.

He was retired from the U.S. Air Force, according to Berger, but he hadn't been a pilot. He started flying later in life.

"He was private, but polite," Berger, 73, said Sunday. "He was always willing to help out."

Washington was still a beginner as a pilot, Berger said. He had been certified as a sport pilot — someone who flies smaller, lower-powered aircraft — by the FAA since 2010, according to the FAA's website.

• • •

During his daily chores Sunday, Rex Myers spotted an ultralight taxiing at the Pilot Country Airport. He waved to Athey, a man who had started coming by two weeks ago.

Later, he heard the ultralight in the air. The tiny plane was taking off from the runway, and it looked good: steady wings on a smooth flight.

Then the power went out across the neighborhood.

Athey's plane had caught in the wires, 40 feet above the ground.

"He was flying his airplane for the first time," said Myers, the volunteer airport manager.

But he also said Athey wasn't supposed to be in the air yet.

For years, Athey had given his time to others. First, it was as a scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts, both when his two sons were young and then even after they had grown. An engineer, he inspired Citrus Park Elementary students to take an interest in space and wowed them with smoky dry ice at the Great American Teach-In. He shared his hobbies of raising homing pigeons and operating radios.

Now, he had told Myers, Athey just wanted to do something for himself.

Athey bought a used ultralight and fixed it up so well that Myers thought it looked like new. He took lessons and got a student pilot's license, federal records show, polishing his decades-old flying skills. His instructor let Athey practice on the ground without him, Myers said.

When Athey took off, he should have been 150 or 200 feet in the air, well above the power lines marked with orange balls, Myers said. He should have had plenty of room to descend to the runway, which ran perpendicular to the lines.

"For some reason," Myers said, "he just never got very high."

It was the first fatality at Pilot Country Airport, Myers said. Over the years, there had been "fender benders" in and around the small public airport. Sometimes, people emerged unscathed.

For several hours after Sunday's Pasco crash, the power remained out and deputies detoured traffic around State Road 52 and U.S. 41 while rescuers untangled the plane from the wires.

Though many pilots live around the airport, the way golfers live in golf-course communities, Athey lived in Odessa.

He had arranged with Myers to keep the ultralight plane at the airport over the weekend.

On Sunday, Athey would have disassembled the small plane, removing the wings and packing it into a trailer to drive home.

Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this story. Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or [email protected]

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