FAA issues final report on 2009 plane crash

Published 11:33 pm Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Federal Aviation Administration released its final report regarding the April 2009 plane crash on the campus of John Essex School.

According to the FAA report, the single-engine experimental airplane flown by Mark E. Keeley, 61, of Forkland, took off unexpectedly as the pilot was making high-speed ground runs along Runway 22 at the Demopolis Municipal airport.

“During the second high-speed ground run, at a point that was more than halfway along the runway, the airplane became airborne, and it was observed to move erratically in all three axes,” the report stated. “Witnesses reported that the airplane made several turns, but their accounts about the number and direction of the turns varied.

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“Several witnesses heard the engine sputter, and then the engine ceased operating. The airplane descended and impacted the ground at a steep angle. A post-impact fire erupted and consumed the cockpit and part of the forward fuselage and engine compartment.”

The plane crashed on April 24, 2009, at about 1:37 p.m. in the back area of John Essex School close to the football field, just 15 minutes after it became aloft. Several students and then-JEHS coach Rodney Dixon ran to try to aid the pilot, but Keeley died in the accident.

The FAA report said that the plane was built by Keeley and an unnamed person. The unnamed person, who was listed as the plane’s co-builder, said the plane was a “Hummel Bird,” with construction beginning in 1996. He completed the engine — built from a converted Volkswagen engine — and most of the fuselage, but stopped working on it for personal reasons.

Sometime after that, when the co-builder lived in Arizona and Keeley lived in Alabama, the co-builder transferred full ownership to Keeley.

Airport manager Buzz Sawyer told the FAA that Keeley had brought the plane to the airport several weeks before the accident and saw him run ground tests on the runway two or three weeks before the accident.

In one of those ground test runs, the engine quit and Sawyer had to help Keeley pull the airplane off of the runway. Also during the run, the fuel tank developed a leak. Sawyer told the FAA that the engine had cut out on at least one other ground run after that.

Keeley had a private pilot certificate with airplane single-engine and multi-engine land ratings. His more recent FAA third-class medical certificate was issued in June 2008, at which time he reported 1,200 hours of flight experience.He also held an experimental repairman certificate that was issued in February 2009.