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Local man and woman die in Winter Haven ultralight plane crash

Authorities are still investigating what caused the fatal ultralight plane crash at the Winter Haven Municipal Airport.
Authorities are still investigating what caused the fatal ultralight plane crash at the Winter Haven Municipal Airport.
Published Oct. 15, 2012

They came from different backgrounds, but had a mutual interest in aviation.

Susanne Broadbelt, 60, of Zephyrhills was a retired teacher who worked for more than 30 years in the Pasco County school system.

Gary T. Lawrence, 61, of Inverness worked as an electrical engineer in Polk County, according to a friend and fellow pilot.

On Sunday morning, the two friends died when their ultralight aircraft crashed during takeoff and landing maneuvers at Winter Haven Municipal Airport.

Police said the two-seat Airborne Windsport experimental aircraft hit the ground, flipped over and slid 168 feet. A sudden wind gust may have contributed to the crash. It was not clear Sunday who was piloting the craft.

Broadbelt, a reading specialist at Chester W. Taylor Elementary School before retiring in 2009, died at the scene. Lawrence died a short time later at Lakeland Regional Medical Center.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to both families as they endure the realization of losing their loved ones," Winter Haven police Chief Gary Hester said.

Those who knew the two said they couldn't wait to climb into the cockpit.

"She was adventuresome. She was just full of life," said Cheryl W. Estabrook, who knew Broadbelt from their years teaching together. "She was one of my best friends."

In recent years, Broadbelt caught the aviation bug. She started flying small, low-powered planes called light sport aircraft that look like motorized hang gliders.

This August, she received certification as a sport pilot to fly the small aircraft, Federal Aviation Administration records show.

Lawrence, the more experienced pilot of the two, was the treasurer for the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1181, based in Lakeland.

He was also a regular at Zephyrhills Municipal Airport, where the two met and became friends. Lawrence took part in a flying club there, said friend and fellow pilot Frank Clementi, 70, of Wesley Chapel.

"There was nothing you couldn't ask him that he wouldn't do for you," he said. "He was just a nice guy."

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating to determine the cause of the crash.

It came after a spate of crashes last month involving light or ultralight aircraft.

On Sept. 16, two pilots died in separate crashes of what authorities described as ultralight planes in Pasco and Hernando counties. Then on Sept. 22, a pilot for Edelweiss Air was killed while flying a small plane in the Land O'Lakes area.

Police said Broadbelt and Lawrence were practicing touch-and-go maneuvers, a procedure where aircraft briefly touch down and take off again, when the craft hit the ground and flipped over at about 11:20 a.m.

"I'm in shock," Estabrook said. "I spoke to her only yesterday. I joked with her to make the guys at the airport buy her breakfast."

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813)661-2454.

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