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Survivor may be key to unraveling crash

Just before Robert Clark's Cessna plunged to the ground, he told an air traffic controller everything was fine.

The Indiana pilot had just aborted a touchdown at Tampa International Airport Monday because a controller warned that his landing gear wasn't down, and Clark was coming around for another try.

"The pilot said, it's all okay," said Preston Hicks of the National Transportation Safety Board. Those were his last recorded words.

Moments later, Clark's twin-engine plane dived nose-first into a palmetto grove about a mile from the runway, killing him, his wife, Peggy, and family friend Robert N. Parker, of Champaign, Ill. Parker's wife, Judy, remained in critical condition Tuesday at St. Joseph's Hospital, with broken bones and other injuries.

Hicks came to the wreckage Tuesday to try to learn why the plane crashed. The couples left the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport just before 3 p.m. Monday for the 20-minute flight to Tampa.

About 3:10 p.m., Robert Clark maneuvered his Cessna for a regular touchdown, as he had done many times over the years.

It was a drizzly, dark Monday in Tampa, but visibility was still pretty good, and the winds weren't particularly strong or turbulent. Clark and the air traffic controller had the routine exchanges about approaching Tampa International Airport's east runway.

But as the self-made businessman from Covington, Ind., was about to land, the controller turned from the other planes he was charged with directing and glimpsed Clark's aircraft.

Something was wrong.

"Just as the airplane touched down, as the controller looked back, he noted that the under-gear was not extended," Hicks said.

The controller told Clark to abort the landing because the wheels had not descended from the hull, but it seems to have been too late.

Sparks flew from the aircraft as it nipped the pavement, the controller told investigators. A preliminary examination of the fragmented, burned plane revealed that the tips of the left propeller show scratches consistent with nicking the runway, Hicks said.

Whether the damaged propeller contributed to what happened next is unknown for now.

Clark regained some altitude and his landing gear started to descend. But the controller was worried about the sparks he'd seen, and asked Clark if everything was in working order. He said yes.

That was the last the controller heard from the 67-year-old grocery chain owner, beloved by his community. He then asked Clark if he was going to circle the airport to the right or the left in order to land. There was silence.

Almost immediately, the plane drifted left and crashed to the ground. Its two wingtip fuel tanks, windshield particles and luggage were strewn along a 75-foot trail, Hicks said.

Clark's plane did not have automatic landing gear, so it is "possible" that he forgot to complete the basic procedure, Hicks said.

But the Cessna was equipped with a warning system that would have sounded intermittently after the aircraft descended to a certain point without the wheels in place for landing, Hicks said.

"Was it operating? We may not be able to answer that."

The cause of the crash could just as well be human error. Perhaps Clark was distracted, Hicks said.

Judy Parker may be able to answer some key questions about what went wrong and why. But investigators haven't yet interviewed her.

"When she's no longer sedated, and she's emotionally available," they will talk to her, Hicks said.

In the meantime, authorities are examining and cataloging the plane's twisted remains. They collected passengers' luggage in order to weigh it, to see if the plane might have been overloaded. It will take up to six months to complete the investigation.