The pilot of a privately owned military training jet died yesterday when it nose-dived into a small Harford County community, clipped the side of a two-story house, crashed into a back yard and exploded into flames.
The two-seat Aero L-39Z0 Albatros took off from Martin State Airport in Middle River shortly after 11 a.m. and crashed about 15 minutes later in Forest Hill, according to Harford County and Federal Aviation Administration officials.
A huge plume of black smoke after the crash attracted scores of spectators as fire officials surveyed the 50-foot debris field in the community of Victorian-style homes.
No one on the ground was injured, but entangled in the wreckage was the body of the pilot, which authorities said was burned beyond recognition.
Authorities said no one else was in the plane.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA were trying to determine the cause of the crash.
Authorities withheld the name of the pilot last night pending confirmation from dental records and blood tests, but neighbors said they believed he was real estate developer J. Robert Martin, an aviator for 30 years and owner of the nearby Forest Hill Industrial Airpark, which is surrounded by homes.
A woman answering the phone at Martin's Forest Hill home declined to comment.
"He was exceptional," said Audrey Warfield, whose husband worked for Martin. She and her husband own the 2 1/2 -story house in the 2300 block of Rockspring Road that was clipped by the Czech-built Albatros. "There was nobody who could be a better pilot than this fellow."
Moments before the crash, "we heard this extremely loud noise, a loud roar directly over our roof," said Don Weber, manager of Hanley's Fitness Center, a gym that is one of several businesses in the Forest Hill Industrial Airpark, about a half-mile from the crash site.
"A couple of people looked out the window, and they saw it suddenly go down," Weber said. "They jumped into their cars and drove to where it crashed and saw just a charred patch of ground and debris scattered all over the place."
The sleek jet, registered to Bond Jet LLC in Wilmington, Del., was flying over the airpark about 11:15 a.m. when it pulled up and fish-tailed before taking a nose dive, witnesses told authorities.
As it descended, the plane hit the trunk of a tree and clipped a corner of the Warfields' home, ripping off a section of roof and wall and exposing a rear bedroom.
Mick Ziehl, who lives next door to the crash site and restores cars and tractors as a hobby, was working on a 1960 Chevy El Camino in his garage when the 7,672-pound plane came down.
"I heard a real loud jet noise and an explosion," Ziehl said. He said he could see only black smoke when he went outside, and at first thought the propane tanks on his neighbors' travel trailer had exploded. He called 911, then searched for a garden hose to battle flames that threatened his antique vehicles.
"I was scrambling," he said.
Crews from the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Department arrived three minutes after the 11:18 a.m. call, quickly extinguishing the flames with foam.
Building inspectors declared the Warfields' house uninhabitable, displacing renters Peter A. and Louanne Fellman. The couple had used the rear bedroom for storage.
"It's just kind of turned our life upside down at the moment," said Peter Fellman, who was planning to rent the house until next year while he and his wife built a home in Jarrettsville next to their son.
In the back yard of Morris and Sandra Carlson's home, next door to the Fellmans, a 14-foot motor boat was melted and warped.
A maple tree in the center of their outdoor dog run was knocked down -- toppling the houses of their dogs Emmy and Misha. Sandra Carlson said she and her dogs probably owe their lives to an errand she ran yesterday.
"I would have been in the back yard with the dogs if I hadn't stopped at Target," she said.
Flames from the explosion also charred the side of the Carlsons' travel trailer, singed the limbs of the trees on their property and warped the siding on neighbor Ziehl's garage.
Jim Peters, Eastern region spokesman for the FAA, said the pilot of the Albatros did not file a flight plan and was operating under visual flight rules, meaning the pilot generally controls the altitude by relying on what can be seen out the window.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Albatros has become a favorite among American jet enthusiasts who have made a hobby of collecting surplus military jets.
The Albatros entered popular culture in 1997 when it was featured in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies.
There were 111 registered L-39 Albatros jets in the country by July 2001, according to the FAA.
Lt. Edward Hopkins of the Harford County Sheriff's Office said that the owner of the high-performance jet had purchased it recently.
Under FAA regulations, Albatros pilots have to be certified to fly the jet, and the plane is required to have regular maintenance and FAA inspections. Its weaponry is removed before civilian purchase.
The plane crash was the third in the Forest Hill area in 15 years, said Rich Gardiner, a spokesman for the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Department.
Most recently, in 1990, pilot Raymond S. Chmielewski, 69, of Apopka, Fla., was killed when his Beech Bonanza crashed in the storage yard of the Benfield Electric Co. on Jarrettsville Road. Witnesses said the pilot appeared to be making a second attempt to land at Forest Hill Industrial Airpark when the plane slammed into the ground.
Yesterday, Peter Fellman gazed up at his rented house, where a small statue of an angel sat on the windowsill.
"Obviously she must have been watching out for us," Fellman said.
Sun staff writer Joe Nawrozki and staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.