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A firefighter hoses a burning aircraft in Whitfield County, Ga., on Saturday. The pilot, Chattanooga businessman Donald Holbrook, died when his Piper PA-31 Navajo crashed soon after takeoff from Dalton Municipal Airport. Contributed photo by Ernesto Lua

DALTON, Ga. -- The pilot who was killed Saturday when his plane crashed and burned near the Dalton airport was Donald Lee Holbrook, 52, of Chattanooga, according to Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood.

Holbrook was a drag-racer who owned Holbrook Performance Parts Inc. The firm, located on Airways Boulevard, is a parts supplier for nitro and alcohol racers, according to the company website.

The twin engine Piper PA-31 Navajo crashed moments after taking off about 4:15 p.m. from the Dalton Municipal Airport.

Ernesto Lua and his cousin Juan Capistran were preparing for a family barbecue at the backyard of their Magnolia Grove subdivision home near the airport when a sputtering roar caused them to look up.

A twin-engine aluminum plane, about 200 feet off the ground, swept over a house a few hundred yards away and then right over the roof of Lua's two-story home.

"I saw the belly of the plane," Lua said.

About the same time, Ron Parker was stepping out on the back deck of his own house and heard the sound of an airplane engine losing power.

The retired Dalton firefighter has lived near the Dalton Municipal Airport for a while and also was trained in fire rescue for airplane crashes.

"The plane was dropping down," he said. "Five seconds later I heard the boom and jumped on the four-wheeler."

Parker said he saw a 200-foot plume of smoke shoot into the air seconds after the explosion.

Andrew Wiersma, manager of Crystal Air at the airport, told the Times Free Press the plane departed the airport at 4:15 p.m. Because the airport has no control tower, pilots don't have to submit flight plans or check in before departure, he said.

A dispatch supervisor at the Whitfield County 911 center said calls about a plane crash near the airport came in at 4:24 p.m. The aircraft struck near a 10-acre private lake and about 50 yards away from a home, Chitwood said.

Lua and Capistran, both 31, hopped into Lua's Ford pickup and barreled down Sane Road onto a gravel-covered, tree-lined private driveway. In minutes they were at the flaming aircraft, which landed in woods between Sane and Airport roads, about a quarter-mile from the airport.

Standing in shorts, sandals and T-shirts, each said the intense heat kept them from getting closer than 50 feet to the plane.

Parker said he knew as soon as he arrived there wasn't anything he could do for anyone inside.

"The fuselage was in the ground," Parker said. "There was a wing off of it."

Lua said he and his cousin circled the plane and stood near the nose, and almost immediately firefighters arrived and began hosing down the burning aircraft.

Parker, Lua and Capistran all said that when they saw the plane in the air, it appeared that the passenger-side engine was not working and the pilot-side engine was sputtering.

It looked as if the pilot was trying to get back to the airport, Parker said. Usually planes approach from the north, but this one was headed in from the southwest, he said.

Within less than a half mile the plane dropped from an estimated 200 feet to just over 50 feet, by eyewitness accounts.

"He was trying to get to the airport in a hurry," Parker said.

Chitwood said an officer would remain on the scene until investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration arrived, probably today.

Holbrook's body was taken to the Georgia Bureau Investigation Crime Lab for an autopsy, the sheriff's office said.

An avid drag racer, Holbrook achieved national prominence in the International Hot Rod Association in the mid-1990s as a racer, owner and crew chief, according to Times Free Press archives.

He classified himself as a mechanic first and a racer second, though he told a reporter in a 1995 interview he'd learned the mechanical side of racing later than many enthusiasts, according to archives.

"When I was 18 years old, I couldn't even change the oil or change the sparkplugs in my own car," he said. Aged 35 at the time of the interview, he'd been in the high performance auto parts sales and mechanical work for at least a decade.

Holbrook's company was operating out of Fort Oglethorpe at that time but later moved to Chattanooga, according to the business' website and archives.