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Heavy fog was factor in Lakeland plane crash

A pilot diverted by bad weather to a Lakeland airport was killed on approach Tuesday when his twin-engine plane crashed into a strawberry field in dense fog, authorities said.

The pilot, Harry Clifford McCollum, 71, of Lakeland took off from Bartow en route to Lake Wales, but the fog was so heavy he headed for Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport, said Polk County sheriff's Lt. Richard Sloan.

There were no passengers on the plane, which was registered to Maximo Air Inc. of Frostproof, according to the Federal Aviation Administration in Atlanta.

Fog was still so thick hours later that several other planes aborted landings at the rural Lakeland airport, said Polk County sheriff's spokeswoman Lynne Breidenbach.

A passer-by driving to work at Plant City Hospital saw the crash just before 6 a.m. and tried to rescue the pilot as the Cessna 425 caught fire.

"He was obviously very shaken. He had a fire extinguisher in his trunk and tried to save the pilot, but because of the flames he was not able to get close," Ms. Breidenbach said.

"The area is heavily fogged in, and that may have played a part. The airport did have its landing lights on, but the tower was unmanned, as is customary at this time of the morning," she said.

The fire spread through the plane, which crashed in the plowed-under strawberry field about a half-mile from one of the airport's two runways, Ms. Breidenbach said. Pieces of wreckage were scattered for a hundred yards.

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Andy Alston was assigned to investigate, said FAA spokeswoman Maryann Cassano in Atlanta. No immediate cause of the crash was released.