Nick McNair climbed in his experimental aircraft Monday morning at the Columbus Metropolitan Airport and flew to a grass landing strip in rural Russell County for a sack lunch with friends.
Then he flew home.
Before he left the airport, he took time to examine the crash site where Gerald M. Edmonds, 63, lost his life Sunday night when his experimental aircraft spun out of control and hit a maintenance hangar while he was practicing touch-and-go landings.
The two-seat, single-engine plane appeared to be making a banking turn on takeoff when it inverted and struck the hangar, according to witnesses.
At the crash site Monday, Federal Aviation Administration investigators were examining the scattered wreckage.
It will be at least two weeks before a preliminary crash report is available, according to an FAA spokesperson.
Edmonds body is scheduled for an autopsy Tuesday at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab in Decatur.
McNair didn’t think twice about flying the day after the tragedy.
“I would be a fool to say that couldn’t happen to me,” said McNair, a helicopter and airplane pilot since 1968. “But I work hard to make sure it doesn’t. ... If it wasn’t safe, I wouldn’t be doing it. I don’t have a death wish.”
Of the 110 private planes hangared at the Columbus airport, only about a half dozen are considered experimental or homemade aircraft, according to those familiar with the planes stored in Columbus.
The classification of experimental aircraft can be deceiving, said Stephen Richey, the Aviation Safety Research Project leader at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.
“Experimental aircraft are not any more dangerous in and of themselves, compared to a Cessna or Piper, when you have somebody operating it properly,” Richey said.
Edmonds was in a two-seat, single engine Veri-Eze craft that was built in 1994 by someone else. It was a similar plane to the one singer John Denver was piloting when he was killed in a 1997 crash in California.
In the last 10 years, there have been four fatal crashes involving the Veri-Eze plane, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. In 2008, there were 68 fatal crashes involving experimental aircraft, compared to 300 fatal crashes of commercially built planes, according to the NTSB.
There are about 23,000 experimental aircraft in use in the United States, according to the Experimental Aircraft Association, with that number increasing by 1,000 every year.
“People hear experimental aircraft and they want to believe it’s like ‘The Right Stuff,’” said Richey. “They are some of the best-built aircraft on the planet. The major problem there is with experimental aircraft is there is a certain kind of person who builds a plane and flies it. They seem to be a little more cocky.”
McNair, who lives in Smiths Station, Ala., knows about a dozen experimental pilots in the Columbus area and takes exception to Richey’s characterization.
“The people I know and associate with are careful,” he said. “I know a lot of guys who fly experimental airplanes and I would say that is unfair. The people I know are cautious about maintenance, preflight filings and weather briefings. Cocky is not a word I would apply to any aviators I know.”
McNair says the reason he flies an experimental craft is simple: cost. It’s inexpensive to own and operate an experimental craft compared to a commercially built plane. Based on 100 hours of flight time a year, McNair said, it costs about $30 an hour for gas, insurance, hangar rental and maintenance, compared $150 an hour for a commercially built plane, he said.
“It’s a huge difference,” said McNair, a retired U.S. Army helicopter pilot. “It allows me to fly in retirement.”
But when something goes wrong, as it did for Edmonds Sunday night, the results are often deadly, Richey said.
“The planes are usually fiberglass or carbon fiber in the higher end aircraft,” Richey said. “The owners will tell you they are stronger than steel, pound for pound. But that is only prior to failure. When it goes into failure, they lose strength and fracture like Styrofoam. The major issue is what they call occupant protection.”
Airport Commission of Columbus Chairperson Sherry Goodrum was at the airport Sunday afternoon when Edmonds crashed.
“A couple of people saw him having a problem,” Goodrum said. “I just saw the aftermath.”
Goodrum urges people to wait for the results of the FAA and NTSB investigations before jumping to conclusions.
“I am not going to speculate about the risks or no risk,” she said. “Stuff happens. We may never know exactly what happened because the person who knows what happened is not here.”