CHICAGO (CBS) – The pilot of a small cargo plane was killed when the plane crashed into a home a few blocks away from Midway International Airport early Tuesday morning.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the pilot reported engine problems shortly after taking off from Midway, and was trying to get back to the airport, but never made it. The plane nose-dived into the front of a two-story home in the 6500 block of South Knox Avenue, around 2:45 a.m., and ended up partially in the living room, and partially outside on the front lawn, its tail still up in the air.
The plane initially was headed for Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling, but just before takeoff, the pilot changed his flight plan to go to Ohio State University Airport in Columbus.
The Fire Department said the pilot of the plane — an Aero Commander 500 turboprop — was the only person in the plane at the time, and was killed in the crash. Crews cut the wreckage into sections, loaded it onto a trailer and hauled it to DuPage Airport for examination.
A friend of the pilot identified him as Eric Quentin Howlett, 47, from Ohio. The medical examiner’s office has not confirmed the pilot’s ID.
WBBM’s Steve Miller spoke with a friend of Howlett, who says he had changed careers several years ago to follow his dream of becoming a professional pilot.
Eric Howlett used to work in IT, his friend and co-worker John Keller tells WBBM, but Howlett wanted to follow his dream to be a professional pilot.
Keller is charter manager of Capital City Jet Center in Columbus, Ohio, where Eric Howlett was a flight instructor.
Keller says Howlett had just gotten the job about a month ago with the Kansas City-based aviation cargo company. He was flying one of that company’s planes when he went down Tuesday morning near Midway.
“He had been working toward getting this position for awhile. That was his focus here in Columbus,” Keller says, “building his time as a flight instructor and flying with us in the charter department.”
“He was no-nonsense. He was a pilot,” says Keller.
WBBM 780’s Steve Miller
The elderly couple who lives in the home was not injured, according to their son, Rick Rolinskas.
“They’re okay. She’s a little confused right now,” he said. “All the neighbors have been real nice to us. We’re just trying to get all the valuables out, and clothes, and get organized, and see where we’ve got to go from here.”
Rolinskas said his parents, Roberta and Ray, have lived in the home for 55 years. It’s where he grew up.
“Sad to say, she always wanted to remodel the house,” “It’s not the way to do it. I just feel so bad for the pilot, and the family. It’s a terrible thing.”
They were sleeping inside their bedroom, which missed getting hit by the plane by less than a foot.
Fire Department Special Operations Chief Michael Fox said the couple was “very lucky” to escape unharmed, as the plane ended up only about eight inches from the bedroom where they were sleeping.
“They were in the bedroom next to the living room, and the living room’s gone,” he said.
The floor of the living room collapsed as a result of the crash, and it took crews until about 9:15 a.m. to shore up the building so that crews could go inside and recover the pilot’s body.
“Were going to document the scene, and then we’re going to take all the evidence, and complete the investigation in a step-by-step process,” National Transportation Safety Board air safety investigator Tim Sorensen said.
Although the plane was severely damaged in the crash, Sorensen said it did not appear as if the plane broke up or suffered a structural failure midflight.
“The pilot advised air traffic control that he had some type of engine problem, and he was attempting to return to the airport, when he lost control and crashed,” Sorensen said.
Sorensen said it was too early to determine if Tuesday morning’s frigid weather was a factor in the crash. He said a preliminary report on the crash would be released in about a week. A final report would not be available for 9 to 12 months.
No fire was reported after the crash, but there was a small fuel leak from the plane.
Some neighbors were awake at the time, and felt the impact of the crash.
“The house shook. It wasn’t a big boom noise. It just shook the ground, and the chandelier had shaken, or something, so we went out the front, and went down there, and I was astounded that it took the whole front of that house out,” Robin Vravlic said.
Hannah Vravlic said she felt “really lucky” the crash wasn’t more severe.
“It’s only four houses (away). It could have been one of those huge planes with more people, and something could’ve went wrong. Thank God it was just something minor,” she said.
Two homes next door to the crash site were evacuated as a precaution.
It could have been the plot directly from a Cold War thriller. A lone U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber on high alert during 1960 routinely carried atomic bombs as part of America’s deterrent to Soviet aggression. Now imagine a routine mission suddenly going horribly wrong as panic and confusion rapidly engulf the crew.
Despite the desperate screams of the instructor pilot telling the crew to stay on board and fly the bomber, the crew abandoned their plane thinking it was about to crash. As they floated down in their parachutes the B-52 with its lights aglow in the night sky over upstate New York flew away — empty. Hours later the unmanned bomber blew up in a massive explosion when it hit a hillside near Barre. It’s not fiction. It happened.
It was in the middle of the night on Dec. 9, 1960, when B-52 No. 55-114 played out this exact scenario except they thankfully didn’t have any weapons on board. When one crewman panicked he set off a chain reaction leading the pilots to believe their plane was about to crash. It remains as one of Vermont’s most spectacular aviation disasters yet few today remember the state’s No. 1 news story of 1960. The city of Barre barely escaped having the massive and empty plane come down inside the city itself.
A huge crater and trench created by the crashing bomber still exist on private land that 54 years later is still littered with small bits of broken wreckage. With varying injuries all of the crew survived except the tail gunner who died when his parachute failed to open. His remains were found in a remote area of the Adirondacks during the following spring.
Empty planes crash
This isn’t the only time an empty plane has flown over Vermont. In fact, on Oct. 21, 1948, a young boy in New Haven had attempted to steal a plane for a flight when it took off as he was trying to start the engine while standing outside. It was later determined the plane had flown for two hours before crashing into Glastonbury Mountain. Investigators first on scene were baffled when no body was found in the mangled cockpit. Months later the true story came to light when the young man admitted his crime.
Earlier that same year another empty and wrecked plane was found smashed into the ledges on the shore of Lake Champlain at Cedar Beach in Charlotte. It took a few days before it was learned the plane had been “borrowed” in New York but had engine problems and was set down on the ice of the lake. The pilot tried to start it from outside when it suddenly started and took off only to impact the Vermont shoreline minutes later. The pilot walked back to New York hoping nobody would discover his adventure.
Vermont’s worst air disaster was a massive U.S. Air Force B-29 bomber that crashed into Hawk’s Mountain in Perkinsville on June 14, 1947. All 12 crewmen died instantly when the bomber, flying at night in a blinding rainstorm, cruised directly into the face of a cliff. The crew was so lost they thought they were near Boston when they were actually over Springfield. A historic sites marker in Perkinsville commemorates the tragedy and the memory of the twelve young airmen.
The worst civilian accident was March 19, 1968, on Terrible Mountain in Weston. Seven men died instantly when their corporate plane being flown by professional pilots became lost in bad weather and flew into the shoulder of the mountain. A subsidiary of the Jones and Lamson Company of Springfield lost five executives in one instant.
25 crashes into Lake Champlain
Twenty-five planes have crashed into or on the ice of Lake Champlain. Several remain under the waters of the lake including parts of a massive four-engine KC-97 that crashed on takeoff from Plattsburgh Air Force Base in 1957.
The state’s most enduring aviation mystery relates to another corporate plane. On a very cold night in January of 1971 a Rockwell 1121A twin-engine jet owned by Cousin’s Properties of Atlanta took off from Burlington with two professional pilots at the controls. About five minutes after takeoff and while over Lake Champlain the jet vanished in a single sweep of the airport’s radar. Small parts washed on shore in Shelburne four months later but nothing else has ever been found. Five men remain missing.
Several high tech searches of the lake have taken place since 1971. Famous searchers and the best technology in each case has turned up nothing. The most recent search took place in August of using the best theories, best technology, and most experienced searchers yet the jet remains hidden on the bottom. Five families and several children continue to hope the wreckage may someday be found. Officials on both sides of the lake continue to consider the possibility of a future search.
The most botched search and rescue operation in Vermont involved a missing plane en route to Burlington. On Oct. 2, 1957, a U.S. Army L-20 Beaver with four officers on board radioed Burlington they would be arriving in about 20 minutes. They never arrived. Vermont officials in the first hour did everything by the book and a full search mission was immediately launched exactly according to all plans.
Soon a call was received from Bradley Field, Conn., that the missing Army L-20 was parked at that airport. Accordingly, Vermont officials closed their search. It wasn’t until days later when it was realized the plane really was still missing. A new search was launched but terrible weather delayed an effective search until Oct. 11 when the wreckage was finally spotted on a ridgeline in the town of Chittenden.
Three of the officers had been killed in the impact with no chance of survival but Col. David M. Perkins, 51, had somehow survived with very minor injuries. He could have hiked to safety but instead opted to stay with the wreckage. He died of dehydration waiting to be rescued. The subsequent finger pointing could best described as “intense.”
It was later determined the pilot had been given a weather forecast of clear weather but a series of unexpected snow squalls had blocked his route to Burlington and he became lost. Had they been 150 feet higher they would have cleared the peak.
The Camels Hump tragedy
Close calls are part of a huge percentage of plane crashes. Vermont’s most famous crash was when a B-24 Liberator came down on Camels Hump on Oct. 16, 1944. Had the plan been mere inches to the right, it would have flown past the mountain in the darkness of a moonless night. Instead, nine young airmen died in the crash and the sole survivor, Pvt. Jimmy Wilson, 18, of Jacksonville, Fla., lost both hands and both feet due to frostbite as he lay injured in the wreckage.
The Army sent all of the early rescuers to the wrong side of the mountain and Wilson was rescued by a group of teenage Civil Air Patrol Cadets from Waterbury who found him 41 hours after the crash. Much of the wreckage remains on the south face of the mountain.
One would think there is plenty of air space above Vermont but in six instances planes have had mid-air collisions. These resulted in several fatalities. The least known midair was in August of 1993 as two new F-16 fighters were en route for delivery to the Israeli Air Force when they collided over Greensboro. Despite shedding many parts both planes were able to make emergency landings at the old Plattsburgh Air Force Base.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board the most common cause of plane accidents is “pilot error.” A study of any number of crashes would confirm astonishingly poor decisions made by pilots. It was on Aug. 14, 1999, when a Pennsylvania pilot took off in a single engine plane from Morrisville in horrible weather. He took off in the wrong direction and unable to see Hogback Mountain in the fog he climbed until impacting trees on the top of the ridgeline. Robbed of air speed the plane wallowed and crashed on the Worcester side. The impact caused the fuel tanks to rupture and burst into flames which consumed the pilot, his wife and their young son. Air traffic control tapes recorded the screams of the wife and son in the final seconds.
While the Cousin’s Properties jet remains missing in Lake Champlain there have also been many planes that have vanished for very long periods of time in the forests of the state. Most have turned up within months but some have taken years. On Sept. 13, 1965, Dr. Herbert Brooks and wife took off from Rochester, N.H., headed to Windsor Locks, Conn. About an hour after takeoff air traffic controllers were startled to hear Mrs. Brooks calling on the radio apparently because of a medical emergency with her husband. After her calls they vanished. The wreckage wasn’t found until July of 1967 when it was spotted by the Civil Air Patrol while searching for another missing plane. The Brooks were far off course when they impacted the side of Haystack Mountain in southern Vermont.
Missing planes have even lead to new legislation in Vermont. On Feb. 22, 1972, two pilots vanished after takeoff from Burlington in bad weather in plane they knew had a defective de-icing system. On May 23, a man contacted the state police to advise that, for a ransom, he would disclose the location of the wreckage with the bodies still inside. At the time he could legally demand such a ransom. The law was changed by Legislature with lighting speed. (In an amazing coincidence the wreckage was spotted that same day by New York State Police while they were searching for another missing plane so no ransom was ever paid.)
Entire families have been wiped out. The John Laurie family vanished on Aug. 17, 1974. Laurie had radioed that they had flown into strong summer storms and were turning back to Lawrence, Mass. It wasn’t until May of 1976 when the wreckage was accidentally found by a logger on top of Searsburg Mountain.
There have been a number of incidents with commercial airliners but only two true crashes resulting in only minor injuries. In September of 1948 a Colonial Airlines DC-3 hit a pile of dirt that had been left on the runway in Burlington. The plane was heavily damaged but everyone survived.
The first air fatality
There is some mild dispute over who first flew in Vermont but there is no arguing over the first aviation fatality. George Schmitt, 24, of Rutland was a true aviation pioneer. At a young age he was setting both national and international records for flight. On Sept. 2, 1913, he took a passenger aloft at the Rutland County Fair.
The passenger panicked and broke a control wire bringing the plane down near the fairgrounds. While his passenger survived with only minor injuries Schmitt died a day later from his injuries. Only scant hours later on the next day and in Northfield, Charles Baysdorfer of New York crashed and barely survived.
Even a casual study of aviation accidents in Vermont reveals that despite a dramatic increase in traffic the level of safety has relentlessly improved very impressively for both civilian and military flight. There will be more crashes. Pilots will make poor decisions, the weather will trap planes and the Green Mountains will continue to stick up into the clouds.
Brian Lindner is a native Vermonter who grew up in Stowe and Waterbury. He is retired from National Life Group but remains as their corporate historian. He is now enjoying retirement as a ski patroller at Stowe Mountain Resort where he also is the historian for the resort. He lives in Waterbury and is working on two books about World War II aviation. Starting with the Camels Hump crash, he has have studied and researched the history of plane crashes in Vermont.
The National Transportation Safety Board says the cause of a plane crash in Caledonia that killed three men will remain a mystery.
The plane was traveling from Troy, Mich., to the Houston County Airport in Caledonia when it crashed into a field in the middle of the afternoon last November, a half-mile from the airport.
The weather didn’t suggest any problems, the plane had fuel and air traffic controllers reported no communication to suggest the pilot was having any issues.
And yet it crashed 500 feet short of its destination.
Killed in the crash were Joel Alan Garrett, 79, of Troy; Dale Edward Garrett, 49, of Berkley, Mich.; and John Paul Bergeron, 50, of Birmingham, Mich.
Survivor, Joseph Stevens, 61, of Bloomfield, Mich., doesn’t remember the crash nor know why they would have landed in the Minnesota city.
“He said when they were together, generally, Dale would fly, and they’d pick a place about halfway to their destination to exercise the dogs, use the restroom, top the airplane off with fuel, and then continue on their way,” an investigator’s memo noted. “He said typically, they’d fly over the airport, (get the landing direction) and then enter the traffic pattern for the landing; he never observed them do anything unsafe, thought they were very meticulous with the airplane, nor did he recall ever having a problem with the airplane.”
In submitting its final report this month, the NTSB ruled the crash was caused by “the pilot’s loss of control for reasons that could not be determined because the post-accident airplane examination did not reveal any anomalies that would have precluded normal operation.”