The deadly flight lasted only 18 minutes, but air safety investigators said yesterday that it's still a mystery why the small red-and-white plane crashed in an Eldersburg family's front yard early Friday. killing the pilot and two passengers.
The pilot, Jeffrey Burbridge, 44, of College Park, and a front-seat passenger, 19-year-old Nancy Thomas, of Laurel, died immediately in the crash, which occurred about 5:30 p.m. Friday. A third passenger, Robert Woods, 43, of Baltimore died later that night from his injuries.
Another passenger, Angela Pownell, 28, of Hampstead continued to be listed in critical but unstable condition at Johns Hopkins Hospital last night, the same as when she was admitted. Her injuries were not disclosed.
"We do know he took off from Haysfield airport [in Clarksville, Howard County], and the total time of the flight was 18 minutes," said Margaret Napolitan, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator examining the wreckage yesterday.
The plane touched down briefly at the small Wolf airport nearby, lifted off and then crashed into the front lawn of Terri and Bill Lins' house. At home at the time of crash was their daughter, Tiffany Hook.
It was the second small plane crash in Carroll County in two days. An NTSB spokesman, Alan Pollack, said he had no new information on Thursday's accident, in which two people were seriously injured. The crash occurred a half-mile south of Route 140 and about a block from the old Reservoir Airport.
Friday's crash occurred a short distance from a small airstrip owned by 71-year-old Hoby Wolf, who saw Mr. Burbridge's plane as it first experienced trouble in the air.
Neighbors said they saw smoke coming from the rear of the plane, but Mr. Wolf said yesterday that there appeared to be a different problem.
"When I saw the sun flash on the wings, I knew the wings had whipped up from a horizontal to a vertical position. I knew what was happening," said Mr. Wolf, a pilot who has owned the rural airstrip for 40 years. "It fell right out of the sky, left wing first."
The flash was a classic sign, he said, of "wing stall," which occurs when the "lift" that keeps planes airborne abruptly
"A stall at 3,500 feet is like a roller-coaster ride," Mr. Wolf said. "Your stomach goes up a little. A stall at 6 inches above the ground is how you land a plane," Mr. Wolf said. "A stall at less than 500 feet is 'Good morning, God.' You must have altitude to recover from a stall, or be close enough to the ground so that it doesn't matter. Only the pilot knows what really happened, though."
But Mr. Wolf does know the conditions at his airstrip, which has a hTC runway that crosses a flat surface, dips, then inclines upward to to the top of a hill.
"When you're at the bottom of the hill, your sight is foreshortened, just like when you look through a camera lens," he said. "The trees appear to be on top of the hill. There's about 500 feet of runway at the top, but at a certain point it just looks like trees. So maybe he thinks it looks like he can't land, and he pours on the coal and takes off again."
Mr. Wolf said he believes it's possible that Mr. Burbridge then continued to climb, instead of lowering the plane's nose and flying level after he cleared high-power lines near the strip. That action could have caused wing stall, he said.
Former students answering the telephone at the Burbridge residence last night said Mr. Burbridge taught aviation ground school at Catonsville Community College. The 14-week course prepares students for Federal Aviation Administration tests.
Joe Albaugh, who took Mr. Burbridge's class in 1992, identified Mr. Woods and Ms. Thomas as students in this year's spring aviation course.
Tammy McCann, another former student and close friend of Mr. Burbridge, said he frequently took students on pleasure flights to restaurants on the Eastern Shore and in Westminster.
She said Mr. Burbridge began flying in December 1973 after attending flight school at an Air Force base in Laughlin, Texas. He recently retired from the Maryland Air National Guard at Martin State Airport, where he flew C-130 transport planes. Before that, he flew B-52s and other aircraft in the Air Force and fought in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.