Originally created 06/19/03

Plane crash is still a mystery



Don Barnes, who taught Ed Johnson how to fly more than 20 years ago, said Wednesday his former student was a pilot who could have handled an engine failure without crashing.

Based on his knowledge of Mr. Johnson's piloting experience, Mr. Barnes said he thinks something more catastrophic happened before Monday's twin-engine plane crash near Augusta Regional Airport, which killed Mr. Johnson and his wife, Leslie.

"It could have been a hundred things go wrong, but I don't believe that losing an engine would have caused that," said Mr. Barnes, the chief instructor of the Aiken Air Service flight school at Aiken Municipal Airport. "He could have handled that. Something catastrophic either happened to him (regarding his health) or the airplane."

Eyewitnesses said they heard a sputtering noise from the plane and watched it veer to the right before taking a nose dive into Phinizy Swamp, which suggests one of the engines was not working properly. However, Mr. Barnes said the plane wouldn't have nose-dived because one engine failed.

"You're just going to gradually lose your altitude," he said. He said one remaining engine would have been enough for Mr. Johnson and his wife to glide on. "Even if it were 500 or 600 pounds overweight, it would not have pitched down like that."

Mr. Barnes described a catastrophic mechanical problem as a complete control system failure; a failure of the elevator system, which causes the plane to lift; or the failure of both engines, but the chance of that happening, he said, would be "extremely remote unless there was a fuel problem."

Ken Kraemer, the director of Augusta Regional, said the airport is allowing investigators to look at the fuel truck used by Mr. Johnson, who was an Augusta Aviation flight instructor. He said other planes used the same fuel truck Monday and had no problems.

"Nevertheless, that's standard procedure," he said.

Cathy Gagne, an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said nothing is being ruled out. The investigation, she said, will include an inspection of the engines, Monday's weather, the propellers and Mr. Johnson's medical history.

On Wednesday, workers for Atlanta Air Rescue delayed the recovery of the plane's fuselage by helicopter until today, in part, because of rain. After the fuselage is recovered, it will be sent to the recovery company's headquarters in Griffin, Ga.

Chris Cartwright, of Atlanta Air Rescue, said much of the plane is still submerged in Phinizy Swamp, and fire damage only went down to the water line.

"The engine is going to tell the big story," he said. "That and the fuel system. And that's all intact."

Augusta Regional officials said the plane, a Piper Navajo, had previous problems fixed and was en route for more repairs by the previous owner in Mississippi when it crashed. Airport officials said the plane was recently purchased by Martinez businessman Mike Tomberlin, but the Federal Aviation Administration says it is still registered to Gold Wing Transportation Inc., of Golden, Miss. The plane was built in 1977, but there are no records showing modifications or repairs to the aircraft.

Mr. Barnes said the Piper Navajo has a good reputation.

"The circumstances are very peculiar," he said.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.

WHAT'S NEXT: Funerals for Ed and Leslie Johnson will begin at 2 p.m. Thursday at St. James Lutheran Church in Graniteville.