Christopher William Bowen, 55, was attending the Wrens-O.B. Brown Memorial Fly-In and had not been long signed into the event when the incident occurred just after 4 p.m.
The Fly-In, hosted by the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Chapter 172, attracts small planes, ultralights, paraplanes and other aircraft like the gyroplane. Also known as gyrocopters, gyroplanes are small aircraft that use an unpowered rotor for lift and a propeller for thrust.
Pilot Barry Kroeplin, 52, of Charlotte, N.C., was flying his own gyroplane when he saw Bowen’s plane go down and burst into flames.
“When I got here today Chris already had his rotor on,” Kroeplin said. “We talked for a little bit and then he took off.”
Kroeplin was not far behind him.
“He flew around the airport 10 or 15 times and then flew out over the fields,” Kroeplin said. “I wasn’t more than a mile or half mile behind him. I saw him make a turn and then he just kept going down.”
Kroeplin said he has been at events with Bowen across the southeast for about three years.
“I didn’t see anything fall off the plane or it do anything odd or anything,” Kroeplin said. “He just made that turn and went down ... I know he had good training. I’ve seen him fly a lot of times. He was a good pilot.”
According to an FAA online registry, Bowen was issued his student pilot’s license May 7, 2010, and his gyro was registered Sept. 2, 2010.
A spokesman for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office said they were turning the investigation over to the National Transportation Safety Board.
John Magnan, the secretary of the EAA Chapter 172, said Wrens has been holding fly-ins twice a year since the mid-1990s.
“In the fall, we sometimes get 15 or 20 gyroplanes,” Magnan said. “They look a lot like a helicopter, but they take off like an airplane. They can land straight down like a helicopter though. They’re a lot cheaper to fly than a helicopter and are normally very safe aircraft.”
Magnan said there have been incidents before where aircraft have gone down hard, but this is the first fatal accident.
“I still believe these things are safer than regular planes,” Kroeplin said, pointing to his own gyro. “I fly both kinds and even after seeing that, I’m still much more comfortable in this.”