NTSB Investigative assistants Mike Garver, left, and Heidi Moats, scour the scene of a fatal plane crash near Davis Airport Tuesday July 17, 2012 in Laytonsville, MD. Longtime pilot Frank Schmidt, 79, was killed and 80-year-old man piloting the plane was injured. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Debi Dreyfuss remembers the overwhelming excitement she felt 23 years ago when she walked onto a tiny airstrip in Montgomery County and met the legend who would teach her to fly.

Jaw set, eyes piercing, credentials impeccable, Frank Schmidt had been flying for decades and teaching people how to fly for almost as long.

“It’s incomprehensible to all of us in the aviation community that this type of accident would get Frank,” Dreyfuss said Tuesday. “He was a legend. He was that good. He’s been on board when other aircraft had issues, and it always came to a happier ending.”

Schmidt, 79, was killed Monday evening on a flight from that narrow 2,000-foot airfield off Hawkins Creamery Road that he probably knew as well as anybody.

He was in the right-hand seat of a 1964 Beachcraft Musketeer that skimmed down the runway, took flight for a matter of seconds and then faltered. It crashed into the underbrush beside a tree line that borders Pocahontas Drive.

Witnesses said the single-
engine plane, white with gold trim and navy blue markings, appeared to lose power, perhaps because of an engine failure. That will be left for investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board to determine.

“We don’t have any conclusions right now,” said Ralph Hicks of the NTSB. His team had towed the wreckage to a hangar by the field, where he said they would be “going system by system” looking for any mechanical problems. “We’re going to be here for a couple of days and will have a preliminary report within five to seven days.”

It was not the plane’s first flight of the evening when it rolled down the runway just after 7 p.m. It was being checked out by Allen W. Rothenberg, 83, who was reportedly buying a share in the Beachcraft Aviation Club, which owned the plane.

Schmidt, who had logged 18,000 hour in the air, climbed into the cockpit with Rothenberg.

“He was trying to get comfortable with the aircraft,” Dreyfuss said. “If you’re buying a plane, you want to see how it works. Every plane is easy to fly in flight, but you want to see how it does in takeoffs and landings.”

Rothenberg, of Bethesda, who records show has been a licenced pilot for a decade and earlier news reports say began flying at age 40, was taken to a hospital with serious injuries. There was no word on his condition Tuesday.

Although planes take wing without incident hundreds of thousands of times each week, more than 40 percent of crashes occur on takeoff or as a plane gains altitude. If a plane struggles on takeoff, pilots are trained to resist the instinctive urge to pull back on the controls, because angling the nose up further tilts the wings as well and diminishes the air flow that would lift them.

“Frank would talk about the [2009] Colgan Air crash where the pilot pulled back on the wheel, and he’d say, ‘Oh, man, you push forward, you push forward,’ ” Dreyfuss said. “I don’t know what happened [Monday], but we always practiced for it all the time, and the first thing you do is push forward on the wheel, you get the airspeed up and fly the airplane.”

When an Air Florida flight crashed into the 14th Street bridge 30 years ago, killing 78 people, the final words in the cockpit were those of the pilot urging his co-pilot “come on forward . . . forward . . . barely climb.”

Jack Peters, 74, said when he began to work as a mechanic in the mid-1970s, Schmidt already was a fixture at the Davis Airport.

“He had skills that many of the instructors don’t have,” Peters said. “He really didn’t have another hobby. He wasn’t actively looking for students, but he was still getting calls.”

Dreyfuss, who now has multiple certifications and trains pilots herself, called Schmidt the best instructor she has known.

“He never criticized my flying,” she said. “He’d say, ‘That wasn’t bad, but we can do it better.’ He never called me stupid, and I know I did some stupid things. He didn’t expect you to do everything right the first time, but when you did he was beaming. There’s a whole lot of people here who had him for an instructor, and I’m positive they’re better for it.”

Non-commercial flying, commonly known as general aviation, is the deadliest arena in American flight. Although there has not been a commercial crash killing more than 50 people since 2001, there were 1,466 general aviation crashes last year in which 444 people were killed.

General aviation has become far safer in the past 20 years, with 650 fewer crashes and 422 fewer fatalities last year than in 1992. The Federal Aviation Administration says there are more than 300,000 general aviation aircraft, a spectrum that includes turbojets, small prop planes, helicopters and balloons.

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.