More From The Mobile Register
Longtime pilot dies in crash
Paul Conner was flying experimental aircraft
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Staff Reporters
ST. ELMO -- An Army flying veteran with more than 30 years' experience in a cockpit died Monday when his experimental, rear-propellered aircraft crashed just west of the small airport here.

The small, white plane piloted by Paul Conner, 57, of Grand Bay circled back shortly after taking off from the air strip at R.P. Crigler Sr. Aeroplex, Mobile County sheriff's deputies said.

It then spiraled into a copse of trees between the airport and a neighboring farm field. Deputies received the call at about 3:50 p.m., said Chief DeputyMark Barlow.

No others were traveling inside the four-seater airplane, he said.

Conner was a well-known aviator at the airport, and built the fixed-wing, Canard-style airplane himself from a kit, other pilots at the airport said. He is listed as the aircraft's builder on its Federal Aviation Administration registration.

A deputy arrived at the airport shortly after the call, then after some searching through the woods found the aircraft, Barlow said. Conner had apparently died on impact, he said. County maintenance workers were called in to cut a trail into the thick foliage, and Conner's body was removed about two hours after the crash.

The white, fiberglass fuselage of the airplane stood, still steeped in green leaves and white blooms, at the end of a freshly cut trail roped off by yellow police tape late Monday afternoon. The aircraft will remain there until investigators with the National Transportation and Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are done with it, Barlow said.

Conner's body was turned over to the state Department of Forensic Sci ences for an autopsy, Barlow said. The cause of the accident is being investigated by the FAA and the NTSB, with help from the Mobile County Sheriff's Office, Barlow said.

Douglas Johnstone, a former Alabama Supreme Court justice who flies an Experimental plane at the St. Elmo airport, said he could not speculate about the cause of Monday's crash.

Despite their designation, Johnstone said, experimental airplanes have a good record of safety and performance.

"It doesn't really mean that you don't know whether the thing will fly again," he said. "I think the experimental airplane community at all levels ... (has) a very good safety record."

Homebuilt aircraft have existed as long as powered flight, according to The Experimental Aircraft Association, which counts the Wright brothers as the first makers of homebuilt planes. Today, tens of thousands of homebuilt aircraft fly throughout the world, according to the group's Web site.

Johnstone, who left the high court this year after deciding not to seek re-election, said the experimental airplane industry had its genesis in lawsuits that drove Cessna, Piper and other manufacturers out of the business of making inexpensive, single-engine personal planes. He said the companies could not afford the liability.

Companies then cropped up all over the country selling kits to folks who built their own planes. Johnstone estimated that about 80 compa nies sell airplane kits, which vary widely in size and complexity. He said the FAA lists folks who assemble airplanes from kits as "owner-builders" as long as they perform at least 51 percent of the labor.

Congress eventually passed a law shielding manufacturers from lawsuits, allowing them to begin making small, non-jet airplanes again. But the community of do-it-yourself airplane builders has persisted.

Johnstone said most experimental aircraft owners modify the basic kit to create unique designs. He said he, for instance, added large wheels to his "Johnstone-Quicksilver."

The Experimental Aircraft Association's Web site states that a "significant number of homebuilt aircraft have flown around the globe" and that one, the Voyager in 1986, remains the only plane ever to circle the earth nonstop on a single tank of fuel.

(Correspondent Greta Sharp contributed to this story.)