Originally created 06/20/03

Plane wreckage removed from swamp



The Piper Navajo will be sent to a storage facility in Griffin, Ga. The National Transportation Safety Board will then begin an investigation, which could last six months to a year.

Dangling from a helicopter crane, the Piper Navajo that crashed in the Phinizy Swamp on Monday, killing Ed and Leslie Johnson, made one final flight Thursday as the recovery process ended.

One by one, pieces of the plane - including the fuselage and twin engines - were lifted by an Air Crane helicopter from 200 yards into the swamp to a dropoff point near a trailer.

Chris Cartwright, the general manager of Atlanta Air Recovery and Storage, which assisted in the process, called the retrieval "one of the trickier ones" he has been involved in. Some trees had to be cut down and swamp water weighed the plane down.

"As you can see, the airplane is in pretty bad shape," he said, standing next to the fuselage, which had been gutted by fire.

Still, Mr. Cartwright said, the plane was more intact than the plane crash he investigated in Augusta in August 2000 that killed former state Sen. Thomas Allgood Sr.; his wife, Thelma; and pilot Steve Patterson.

"With the Allgood plane ... there was just a lot of debris," he said. "There's still a lot here they(the National Transportation Safety Board) can piece together."

After the recovery, Mr. Cartwright said it appeared the right wing hit the ground first.

"As soon as the wing ruptured, it pretty much ignited," he said.

Airport officials said Mr. Johnson, who was an Augusta Aviation flight instructor, had reported mechanical problems soon after takeoff. Witnesses said his plane veered to the right before crashing.

The plane will be sent to an Atlanta Air Recovery storage facility in Griffin, Ga., where the NTSB will piece it back together for further investigation. Safety board officials said the investigation could take six months to a year to complete.

On Thursday, that process became a step closer as the helicopter made four trips into the swamp.

The helicopter first lifted the plane's right engine and tail. That engine became disconnected from the plane during the crash, recovery officials said. The tail was cut from the plane by workers to allow an easier lift of the fuselage, which had become weighed down by water.

A wing and the second engine were then salvaged, followed by the fuselage. All of the wreckage had been badly charred, including the pilot and co-pilot seats - which were burned to their metal frame.

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