Federal investigators piecing together the weekend crash of a Czech-made jet in a Harford County community focused yesterday on the wings as a possible contributor to the fiery incident, which killed the pilot.
Steve Demko, lead investigator on the case with the National Transportation Safety Board, said an engine specialist with the agency visited the scene early yesterday.
The engine appeared to have been trying to gain power when the plane crashed in the community of Forest Hill, he said, adding that the wing flaps might have stalled, causing the Aero L-39Z0 Albatros to come down at a steep 50-degree angle.
The plane, piloted by owner J. Robert Martin of the 2100 block of High Point Road in Forest Hill, crashed Sunday about 11:30 a.m. after clipping the side of a home in the 2300 block of Rocks Road and landing in a neighboring back yard. No one on the ground was injured.
Witnesses to the crash said Sunday the plane appeared to have been making a flyover at a nearby event at the Forest Hill Industrial Airpark, which Martin owned. Demko said evidence at the scene tended to support those accounts but that a preliminary report on the crash might take a week to complete.
Ken Miller, a partner in Scieszka Power, a custom motorcycle business that leases space in the industrial park, said he saw the jet streak past Sunday morning during an open house Miller's company was holding. It climbed above the trees, he said, before it tilted to the left and slipped below them again.
"We were standing there waiting to see the plane again," he said. "Instead, what we saw was a ball of fire."
Miller said Martin, 64, had stopped at the business about an hour earlier to tell Miller that he and his wife would drop by the open house later, after he went for a short flight. "He just indicated to me it was a nice day and he was going to fly," Miller said.
Martin did not mention, though, that he planned to fly over the show. "No one was more surprised than we were," Miller said. "It was not a planned event."
Miller said he doubted Martin was flying past capriciously. He described Martin as being on an "even keel, slow to react and quick to think. He was not a chance-taker."
Martin's son, J. Robert Martin Jr., a pilot with Delta Airlines, said his father was planning to go to Mass at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church in Hickory with his wife, Mari, after his flight Sunday. The flight left from Martin State Airport about 11 a.m.
Martin liked to fly every couple of weeks or so, his son said, adding that he was an excellent pilot who had been flying for about three decades.
"We flew together all the time," said the son, who also worked with his father in the family building business, Forest Hill Construction Co.
The elder Martin grew up on the family dairy farm in northern Harford County, graduated from North Harford High School and attended the University of Kentucky for a year, his son said. He later worked as a carpenter, moving on to remodel houses before starting a construction company.
Martin bought the airpark in 1987, when it was an airstrip with one or two buildings. He built the business, designing spaces for many tenants and expanding the park into a prosperous and sprawling complex of more than 35 acres, according to a Harford Business Ledger article in 1996.
Scott Schubert, who owns a roller manufacturing business in the park, said Martin was personable and came by regularly, sometimes in the golf cart he used for visits. "He was always riding around, checking on businesses and talking to you," Schubert said.
Miller said Martin was a kind and compassionate person who went out of his way to take an interest in his tenants. "If you were up against it, ... he wasn't on the phone harping at you," he said. "He was trying to find ways to help you."
Aimee O'Neill, owner of an auction company in Forest Hill, said Martin enjoyed big-game hunting, and when her children were small and she leased space in the airpark office, they loved to peek at the exotic animals mounted in a hangar where he kept one of his planes. "I think he was a person who enjoyed life and shared it well with his family and the community," O'Neill said.
Yesterday on Rocks Road, yellow tape roped off the houses around the crash site. Peter and Louanne Fellman, who were renting the house - now declared uninhabitable - where the plane hit, were getting in late yesterday afternoon to pick up a few more belongings. They planned to stay with their daughter in Carroll County.
Sandra and Morris Carlson's home next door, where the plane skidded across the back yard and exploded into flames, is fully intact, Sandra Carlson said yesterday. But a dog house, pen and sheds were destroyed, and a camping trailer is seared black from the fire.
"It hasn't been that bad really," she said of all the commotion around her house. Insurance adjusters have told the couple that after the wreckage is removed, the jet fuel-soaked soil must be removed and new dirt brought in.
Across the street, Audrey and Martin Warfield, owners of the house hit by the plane, said a contract they had received recently for the sale of the rental house was now uncertain. "Everything's wait and see," Audrey Warfield said.