Pilot was focused on flying

A few seconds separated Harold Dillon from being another victim of a plane crash Wednesday night.

Mr. Dillon, 23, was on his way to Spanish class at Augusta State University just before 7 p.m. when he turned from Martin Lane onto Walton Way. He was next to the parking lot of Congregation Children of Israel when he looked to the left out of his window and saw "a blur."

That blur was a 1974 Piper Arrow single-engine plane being piloted by 19-year-old Ron Baker of Cartersville, Ga., said Phoenix Air of Cartersville, the plane's owner and Mr. Baker's employer.

The pilot was killed in the crash but no one on the ground was injured. Witnesses such as Mr. Dillon said there were no engine sounds prior to the plane slamming into the west side of the temple.

The plane had just skidded across Martin Lane, where Mr. Dillon had been seconds before.

"It was going so fast it was pretty much like a blur," said Mr. Dillon, who thought at first it could be a piece of someone's car. "Then there was a large crash."

Mr. Dillon did a U-turn to go back but "the plane was already engulfed in flames," he said.

Mr. Dillon called 911 to summon help and stayed to help authorities at the scene, which meant missing Spanish class.

"It didn't really hit me until later in the night," he said. "Any later and I would have been part of the wreckage."

Mr. Baker, who was a licensed pilot, was flying the plane home from Charleston, Phoenix Air said in a statement. He worked as a lineman for the company at its fixed base operation at the Cartersville-Bartow County Airport, where the plane was based, the company said. Mr. Baker had been with the company for more than a year.

"Ron was an outstanding young employee with a bright future with Phoenix Air," the company said. "All of Phoenix Air's employees are saddened by this loss."

Mr. Baker came from a family of pilots. His father and grandfather were also aviators.

When Mr. Baker was 12, he started flight lessons on his own even though his parents told him he was too young.

"He could fly solo before he could have his driver's license when he was 15," said Mr. Baker's father, Ronnie Baker II.

"The kid was so focused. That's the kind of man he was. He was one in million," his father said.

Mr. Baker's family said he flew a passenger from Cartersville to Charleston in the morning and then returned to the Cartersville-Bartow County Airport. Later Wednesday, he flew back to Charleston and was on his way home to Cartersville for the second time when the crash occurred.

Family members say they believe Mr. Baker tried to steer clear of homes in the area, based on his attempted landing in an open parking lot. His father said it was some consolation his son died trying to protect others.

"It's nice to know. He always did the right thing."

"He was a damned good pilot," Mr. Baker II said. "I always trusted my life to him every time we went up."

According to Associated Press reports, it's not the first time a plane with Phoenix Air has had an accident this year. In July, the AP reported that a twin-engine turboprop aircraft owned by Phoenix Air skidded to a safe landing with malfunctioning landing gear in Point Mugu, Calif. Nine passengers and three crew members were aboard.

Phoenix Air is a charter airline and flight training company that specializes in cargo, medical and military transport services, according to the company's Web site. An arm of the company also provides airborne weapons and electronics training and testing services to the U.S. military.

Concerning Wednesday's crash, National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jill Andrews said Thursday that the plane's initial impact point was about 45 feet from the temple, in a parking lot on the other side of Martin Lane. She said the plane then skidded across the road and into the temple.

Ms. Andrews said the NTSB planned to move the plane's wreckage on Thursday from the crash site to a facility near Atlanta for an inspection of the aircraft, including its motor.

Ms. Andrews said the pilot had reported an engine problem to air traffic control before crashing, but she wasn't aware of any specifics beyond that.

She said a preliminary report on the crash should be released in about a week, but an ultimate determination as to the cause won't come for anywhere from six months to a year.

News Assistant Lyndsay Thetford contributed to this report.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or J. Scott Trubey at (706) 823-3424.