Pilot critical after crash
From his vantage point on the ground, Walley Winstead had a sinking, helpless feeling as he watched the low-flying airplane overhead.
A four-passenger, 1962 Cessna 182 Skylane piloted by Winstead's neighbor, Terry Cox, 66, was flying erratically Sunday afternoon just west of Lansing. Winstead said he couldn't see Cox - or anybody else - sitting up in the pilot's seat and knew something was wrong.
"It was a helpless experience," said Winstead, himself a pilot. "The guy in the right seat, he looked at me and there was not a thing I could do."
Within moments, the plane's engine stalled, and the craft crash-landed in a nearby field, about a half-mile east of the private High Crest Air Park's grass runway, where it had taken off about 30 minutes earlier.
Cox and two passengers, Dewayne Decker, 47, and Maria Decker, 44, both of Lansing, were transported to St. John Hospital in Leavenworth. Hospital officials said the Deckers were treated and released. The Deckers did not return a telephone call for comment.
Although a preliminary report from the Federal Aviation Administration indicated the highest injury suffered in the crash was "minor," Cox was transferred to the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kan., where officials Wednesday said he was in critical condition.
The Kansas Highway Patrol, which handled the initial investigation into the crash, said Cox had become ill and disoriented while piloting the flight. Winstead said he had heard Cox had suffered an aneurysm, though that could not be confirmed.
Winstead said he had watched the entire flight "because that's what I do out here." His house and hangar are on one of the 18 lots that surround the airstrip, south of 163rd Street and Gilman Road, and most of the property owners, including Winstead and Cox, fly their aircraft in and out of it.
Winstead, a former fixed-based operator of Sherman Airfield at Fort Leavenworth, said he now spends much of his time watching planes come in and out of High Crest when he isn't piloting his own craft.
"It's the first and probably will be the last time I've seen a plane depart, watched its entire flight and then seen it crash-land," Winstead said.
Cox and the Deckers, Winstead surmised, were going out for a pleasure flight when they left the airport about 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
"I'm sure he was just showing them the sights," Winstead said.
But somewhere along the line, something went haywire. The plane started to circle the airstrip, but it was flying erratically. At one point, Winstead said, the plane was on target to hit either Cox's house or Winstead's nearby hangar.
"The nose was pointed right at his house," Winstead said. "I'm yelling, 'Go up, yank it up.' About 20 feet from my hangar, it's yanked up."
That maneuver, Winstead believes, was done by whoever was sitting next to Cox - probably Dewayne Decker. Had the plane hit the house or the hangar, Winstead said, "they'd have all been history."
Shortly afterward, the plane crash-landed.
"It stalled low to the ground," Winstead said, "which saved them."
Winstead said he hurried to the crash site along with Bill Driscoll, another neighbor with whom Winstead had been talking on the phone. When they arrived, several other witnesses already had gathered.
Rick Huhn, chief of Leavenworth County Fire District No. 1, said that when rescue workers arrived, Cox and the Deckers had been helped out of the plane.
Among those at the scene was Chuck Magaha, Leavenworth County's emergency preparedness director, who said the plane suffered extensive damage.
"The plane was sticking with its tail end in the air with the nose down on the ground mangled up," Magaha said.
Magaha said the plane was about a quarter-mile from 159th Street. The situation caused problems because ambulances were unable to cross the field, which had a couple of wet drainage ditches.
So firefighters went in on two four-wheel-drive trucks. One was a pickup truck, with the back end covered with a utility topper and a stretcher inside. The other was a brush truck, which took rescue workers to the site.
Sunday's weather was cold and windy, so Huhn said it was important to get the pilot and passengers to a warm place as soon as possible. Temperatures were in the 20s, and Huhn said the pilot and passengers were cold.
"It was on top of a hill," Huhn said. "It was 28 degrees with 10 to 15 mph wind - it was pretty nippy out there on that hill."
Magaha said this wasn't the only nearby airplane crash this year.
"This was the second one in less than two months from the same airport," Magaha said. "We had one here not too long ago - an experimental plane; he had trouble getting it up, and it hit the fence and turned over."
At that accident, rescue workers lifted the plane up to help the pilot escape. The pilot was not injured.
"He walked away from it," Magaha said.
The Kansas Highway Patrol routinely oversees plane crashes in Kansas, said Lt. John Eichkorn, a patrol spokesman.
"We have a gentleman's agreement between the FAA and our agency where we respond to plane crashes that happen in the state," Eichkorn said. "We notify the FAA and they'll end up themselves or the National Transportation Safety Board will also send representatives."
The size of the plane doesn't matter, Eichkorn said.
"If it (the plane crash) is little to huge, we'll be with local law enforcement securing the scene, making sure that people aren't tromping around destroying evidence, and gathering preliminary information for the FAA so that they can start determining what they have before they can head out for the location of the crash," Eichkorn said.
FAA investigators were out Monday and filed a preliminary report on Sunday's accident. It noted the pilot was disoriented and feeling ill, but didn't mention anything wrong with the aircraft.
Winstead said he was certain Cox wasn't out for an acrobatic joyride.
"I've known him for years and he's not a hot-dog type of pilot; it's all by the book," Winstead said.