published Friday, September 5th, 2014

Engine trouble likely cause of fatal plane crash near the Collegedale Airport

Investigators work the scene of a small-engine plane crash Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014, in a field near Ooltewah Industrial Road in Ooltewah, Tenn. The plane's single occupant was killed in the crash.
Investigators work the scene of a small-engine plane crash Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014, in a field near Ooltewah Industrial Road in Ooltewah, Tenn. The plane's single occupant was killed in the crash.
Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

A lack of flight experience was not the cause of the plane crash that killed pilot Don Edens on Wednesday afternoon near the Collegedale Airport, a co-worker said.

Edens, 44, was a project manager at Empire Equipment LLC and also had a commercial pilot's license, said Owen Ragland, an administrator at the Knoxville-based construction company where Edens had worked since 2007.

"Edens was an excellent pilot," Ragland said. He had piloted the company's Lancair IV-P four-seater since he began working for the company, flying regularly from Knoxville to one of his projects in Jackson, Miss.

That familiar route was his planned itinerary Wednesday before the plane crashed in the 9500 block of Ooltewah Industrial Drive.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board visited the site Thursday. Lead investigator Shawn Etcher said that "equipment problems and difficulty maintaining altitude" are believed to be the causes of the crash.

According to radio recordings of Edens' last conversation with Chattanooga air traffic control, he lost visibility from the cockpit.

"I've got oil all over my windshield and am going to need some help for line-up," Edens said as he requested an emergency landing.

The controller gave Edens directions to the Chattanooga airport, and after Edens said he couldn't make it that far, redirected him to the Collegedale Airport about three miles from his location.

The aircraft hit hard in a grassy field short of the airport, demolishing the front end and leaving the pilot, the sole occupant, dead.

"Obviously he had catastrophic engine problems to crash like this," said David Smith, president of Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 150, whose members are based at the Collegedale Airport.

But questions have been raised about that particular plane, a carbon-fiber, home-built craft categorized by the Federal Aviation Administration as an experimental aircraft, meaning it is not subject to the same certification standards as a factory-built plane.

On March 9, 2010, the FAA notified Lancair owners and operators that the IV model had "revealed a large and disproportionate number of fatal accidents for their fleet size."

The plane has been out of production since 2012.

The FAA said the high crash rate was "mainly due to the pilot's lack of awareness of the slow-flight and stall characteristics of these type of high performance aircraft."

Smith agreed that the Lancair IV-P required a special touch.

"The pilot of this particular type of airplane has to be experienced," he said. "This is a high-performance aircraft ... designed to be so fast. As a pilot of this plane, you have to plan plenty ahead on any of your actions."

Ragland said Edens' plane had been "highly maintained, and had all of its maintenance. It was in really good working order."

He said Edens got his pilot's license while attending The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, where he graduated with a degree in business administration.

Edens lived in Lake City, now known as Rocky Top, Tenn., with his wife and four children.

"We are in shock that this accident happened," Ragland said. "Don Edens was a guy with a lot of experience, strong character, and a family man with strong morals."

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6592.

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