OCEAN CITY -- A veteran, 61- year-old pilot was killed yesterday morning when the experimental, single-engine jet he was flying for a series of classified military radar tests crashed and burned in the woods about 1,000 feet west of Ocean City Municipal Airport.
According to Maryland State Police, Charles Lischer of Cameron Park, Calif., died about 10:30 a.m. when his 12-foot, single-seat BD-5J aircraft crashed as it approached the runway.
"At this point, we don't know whether it was a mechanical problem, pilot error or what," said state police Lt. Douglas A. Dods, commander of the Berlin barracks. "There was occasional light rain in the area, but when we arrived, the ground wasn't even wet."
Lischer, a veteran civilian pilot and a nationally known air show performer, had been in the air about 20 minutes, flying patterns over the ocean so a military plane could calibrate its radar.
"All I can say is that [the other aircraft] was a military data collection plane," said Lischer's employer, Bob Bishop, president of Aerial Productions International of Marana, Ariz.
Bishop said the $350,000 BD-5J - the world's smallest jet, with a 17-foot wingspan -presents the same radar profile as a Chinese "Seersucker" cruise-type missile. The 500-pound plane can fly at 300 mph.
"We're the bad guys in the war games," Bishop said. "No one wants to see a cruise missile flying over his house, so it's us."
He said his company is under exclusive contract to the U.S. military, and makes a total of 10 to 12 deployments a year on both coasts. He said a deployment could last from a few days to several weeks.
On Thursday, Lischer flew three of the five sorties that Aerial Productions staged over Washington. The military announced that the missions were homeland defense exercises to test ground sensors.
Late yesterday afternoon, a team of inspectors from the Federal Aviation Administration had the wreckage moved to an airport hangar, where they will begin reconstructing the tiny jet.
According to airport manager George Goodrow, Lischer and another pilot with an identical jet arrived at the airport Saturday afternoon. They began a series of radar tests Monday, a project that was to have been completed yesterday.
The pilots gave Goodrow uniform shoulder patches that bore the slogan "JAMAX, Freedom Team," the same slogan painted on the blue-on-blue, camouflage-patterned jets.
"It was supposed to be his last mission; that's what they had planned," Goodrow said. "They each had flown two or three times on Monday and yesterday. It just looked like he was making a normal landing when he just disappeared in the trees. The fuel tank exploded on impact, and the plane was engulfed by the time we got there."
Bishop said that Lischer had worked for Aerial Productions since 2001 and had logged more than 300 hours in the small, kit-built BD-5J, which is disassembled and trucked across the country.
"We'll do sea-skimming across the tops of waves," Bishop said. "Chuck was good enough that he could have done it upside down - though we never do."
Shawn Bunting, 16, who was working at a produce stand about a half-mile from the crash site, said he did not see the jet but heard the crash and saw black smoke almost immediately.
"It was about 10:30 and within five minutes the whole road was packed with ambulances, fire trucks and police," Bunting said. "They blocked the road and wouldn't let anybody in."