Builder says crash likely pilot's fault Experimental model defended as safe by manufacturer; Test for drug use planned; Flier's brother rejects theory that Viagra impaired abilities


Manufacturers of the experimental mail-order plane that nose-dived into Beards Creek on Saturday defend the integrity of their product and speculate that pilot error, not mechanical problems, caused the accident that killed actor William Gardner Knight.

Federal investigators, tipped off by a prescription bottle found among Knight's belongings, suspect that the pilot made a fatal mistake while impaired by the side effects of Viagra, though they have not ruled out other potential causes.

They sent blood and tissue samples yesterday to Federal Aviation Administration laboratories in Oklahoma City, where a test is being developed to help determine whether Knight, 56, had the impotence drug in his system.

Knight's brother, Milton Knight of Ohio, blamed the accident on mechanics.

"I think it is ridiculous. [Viagra] doesn't have anything to do with it. To me it is a mechanical error unless Viagra got into the fuel system."

The Burgess RV-6 crashed Saturday evening as Knight was trying to land at Lee Airport in Edgewater. He was planning to have dinner with a friend whose boat was docked outside Annapolis and then fly to New York City to see his two sons..

There are 800 RV-6s operating world wide, including the Nigerian Air Force training fleet. The National Transportation Safety Board has recorded 48 accidents involving the craft, the first of which was made in 1986, since 1986, including 14 deaths.

Dick Vangrunsven, who manufactures the kits from which the planes are assembled in North Plains, Ore., said the RV-6 "has no identifiable problems. It is high-performance and more sporty, handling more like a sports car than a sedan."

The plane flies at 160 to 180 mph.

"They land real slow and are very maneuverable. As far as design, they are probably one of the best-built home planes," said Alan R. Barrigar of Goldendale, Wash., who owns an RV-6. His has been involved in two minor accidents.

Knight was an experienced pilot who was passionate about World War II planes. He painted his plane silver, black and red, the colors of the Nigerian Air Force. He embossed a Mickey Mouse logo on the tail and painted the name of a Nigerian dictator on the plane's side.

Knight moved to Delray Beach, Fla., two years ago and planned to become a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker next month. He had worked in naval intelligence, played small roles in several Oliver Stone movies, written a novel, performed commercial voice-overs, organized air shows and worked on Wall Street. He had a master's degree in business administration from the University of Virginia.

Knight regularly flew out of Lantana Airport, south of West Palm Beach, Fla.

"He was an excellent airman, highly qualified. He'd flown lots of different airplanes," said Owen Gassaway, president of Florida Airmotive, which operates Lantana Airport. "He was able to go with the big boys."

Gassaway said he thinks Knight was aware of an FAA warning about flying while taking Viagra. "I am sure he knew about it because he was an avid reader of aviation magazines," Gassaway said. "He read most of the aviation articles I have read, which say that the standard for Viagra" is to wait six hours after taking it before flying a plane.

Viagra can impair color vision, making it difficult to distinguish between blue and green, which are used extensively in airport lighting and cockpit instruments.

Investigators would not disclose the colors of Knight's plane's interior lighting system. RV-6 assembly kits allow owners to determine what colors are used to light the cockpit instruments.

Lee Airport has red and white runway lights, with a green rotating beacon light.

Pub Date: 11/25/98

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