Three Norfolk men were killed yesterday when their single-engine plane plunged into a parked airplane and exploded into flames after an aborted landing attempt at Woodbridge Airport in Prince William County.
Federal Investigators identified the pilot of the four-seat Sierra Beechcraft as John Clair, 32, of Norfolk. The two other men were not immediately identified.
An investigator who sifted through the two demolished aircraft yesterday said the Beechcraft, which left Norfolk at 10 a.m., apparently pulled out of its initial landing approach and attempted a left turn over the airport office to circle for another approach when it went out of control.
The wreckage yielded no evidence of airplane malfunction, according to John B. Drake, an air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board. He said the Beechcraft's landing gear was locked in the down position and the engine was at full throttle when the crash occurred.
Drake said the plane apparently stalled as it began to circle for a second landing attempt. "The pilot might have made that left turn a little too early," he said.
The Beechcraft, rented for $48 an hour from the Piedmont Aviation Co. at Norfolk International Airport, crashed into a Cherokee Warrior II, also a single-engine plane, Drake said. The Cherokee was owned by Charles Benn, owner of Woodbridge Airport, a private field about 20 miles southwest of Washington catering to small planes.
Virginia State Police said the Beechcraft was landing at Woodbridge to pick up a passenger and then was to continue north on a business trip to Oxford, Conn.
The bodies of the three men aboard the plane were burned beyond recognition. Autopsies will be performed today at Fairfax Hospital by the county medical examiner, police said.
Investigator Drake said the plane's pilot radioed the field about 11 a.m. and requested landing directions. These were radioed back, and the plane made its landing approach with light winds and good visibility.
An eyewitness said the plane's left landing gear did not appear to be completely extended when it approached the north-south runway from the north. The witness said he lost sight of the plane when it pulled out of its approach and flew over the airport office.
When it reappeared, the witness said, the plane was diving toward the airport's parking apron, its nose pointed down and its left wing tipped downward at a 45-degree angle.
Drake said the Beechcraft, which has a 200-horsepower engine and sells for about $50,000 crashed into the fuselage of the parked plane. Both planes then skidded along the apron for about 60 feet, he said.
A spokesman for Piedmont Aviation, which is based in Winston-Salem, N.C., said the 1978 Beechcraft was one of 12 small planes available for rent or charter at the Norfolk airport.
At the accident scene yesterday, Lowell Sneathern, Manassas general manager for Piedmont, said the planes are rented only to qualified pilots. He described the Beechcraft as "a relatively inexpensive four-seat retractable landing gear airplane." He said it is a popular model for use by small businesses.
Longtime pilots at Woodbridge Airport said yesterday's accident was the first fatal crash they could remember in the past 20 years. Federal investigators spent more than six hours sifting through debris. The fire that followed the crash made it difficult to tell that two planes were involved in the accident. CAPTION: Picture 1, Rescue workers remove bodies of three men killed in plan crash yesterday at Woodbridge Airport. Virginia State Police examine wreckage, left, as workers begin to sift debris. By John McDonnell - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Virginia State Police gather near engines of two plans involved in crash at Woodbridge Airport yesterday that took lives of three men. By John McDonnell - The Washington Post; Map, Triangle locates site of plane crash. The Washington Post