WTOP-radio traffic reporter Steve Thompson and his pilot were critically injured last night when their single-engine plane lost power during its evening rush-hour flight and crashed into a Vienna neighborhood, narrowly missing an unoccupied house.
Rescue workers used power tools to free the pilot, Bernard (Wick) Wicker of Gainesville, and then Thompson, who witnesses said had part of the single-engine plane's control column embedded in his stomach. It took nearly one hour to free Wicker and another 30 minutes to pry out Thompson.
The men were rushed to Fairfax Hospital. Thompson was reported in critical condition with extensive injuries, while Wicker was said to be in critical but stable condition with head, chest and other injuries.
Minutes before the crash, which occurred just before 6 p.m., Thompson radioed the station, "We're having engine trouble; we're going to miss the next report; we're going to try to make Manassas (Airport)."
Thompson called back a minute later, in what coworker Douglas Bakshian described as "an incredibly calm voice," to report: "The engine has gone out; we're going to try to land somewhere in Vienna; I'll call you when we get to the ground."
Officials of Colgan Airways, owner of the plane, said the aircraft had taken off from Manassas Airport at 3:45 p.m. and had been in the air nearly two hours when the trouble developed.
Witnesses said the Cessna aircraft struck one tree, flipped over and came to rest with its nose down against a second tree in the back yard of the Bernard J. Little family of 225 Ayrhill Ave., near Tysons Corner. o
Mary Beard, who lives in a house with a yard adjacent to the Littles', said, "I looked out the picture window and directly into the lights of the plane. I thought it was coming straight for the house . . . I don't know how he managed to clear the roof."
Ron Staats of 340 Glyndon St. rushed to the wreckage where he tried to comfort the two men trapped inside.
"I tried to tell them to relax and wait for the rescue squad," said Staats. "They were both conscious."
Although the craft leaked fuel, it did not explode or catch fire. Witnesses speculated that the cushioning effect of the trees and the fact that the engine was not functioning prevented a fire.
A spokesman for Colgan Airways said Thompson and Wicker had flown the same plane without incident during the morning rush hour yesterday.
Walter Starling, WASH-radio's trafffic reporter, speculated last night that Thompson and Wicker may have intended to land at the Westwood Country Club about a mile north of the crash site.
Starling recalled making an emergency landing on that club's grounds in January 1978 after his single-engine plane experienced engine trouble.
Thompson, 34, is an Alexandria resident who has been the traffic-watch reporter for WTOP for two years. The station said Wicker, 52, a Colgan Airways employe, is Thompson's regular pilot.
A Federal Aviation Administration inspector at the crash scene said the plane "will be sitting there for several days," while an FAA investigation proceeds.
Little, his wife and two daughters had flown to Fort Myers, Fla., earlier in the day for an early Thanksgiving holiday and were not home at the time of the crash. But Little's mother, Varah Louise Ward, and his brother Ira pulled into the family's driveway moments after the plane went down. Varah Ward dashed into the house -- which was not damaged -- and called rescue workers.
She later telephoned her son Bernard in Florida.
"He said he would wait until after Thanksgiving to come home," she said. "He didn't want to see it right now."
Hours after the crash, Ira Little, 23, said the white-painted plane was resting about 10 feet from the house with its front crumpled and its tail end propped nearly intact against a tree. He said the tip of one wing rested only a few inches from the house.
"I've been thinking of all the times we'd be back there barbecuing and thinking about how lucky we are. Thanksgiving will come a little early for us this year," said Little, a printer who lives in Washington.
Armand Asselin, WTOP-radio news director, said last night he complained as recently as 10 days ago of "shoddy maintenance" based on complaints from Thompson. Asselin said he spoke to Charles Colgan, owner of the Colgan Airways, Nov. 5 and followed up the conversation with a letter.
Herschel Connell, executive vice president of Colgan, said he was not familiar with the letter but added that the plane that crashed "had a very good maintenance record." He said the plane had undergone an extensive, three-day maintenance check in mid-October and was regularly inspected after every 50 hours of flight time.
Wicker was described by Chuck Colgan Jr., son of the firm's owner, as a senior pilot who has flown for the company for 12 years.
"He's the most respected pilot we had out here and he was selected for the flight for that reason," said Colgan.
Colgan said the plane, which can hold up to four passengers, was a 1978 Cessna that cost $23,000 and had logged 1,100 hours of flight time since its purchase.