Pat Knutson said he knows what goes through a pilot’s mind in an emergency situation.
So when he saw a small, twin-engine plane seemingly take a nosedive into a wooded area near Maple and Maize, he knew what had happened.
“When a pilot knows they’re going down … they don’t want to take out other people,” said Knutson, an aircraft mechanic. “He did a perfect job – he took the trees out on the other side and landed that thing right into the bank.
“If he had missed that target by even 20 feet, there would have been a lot of damage to these houses and the people in them.”
The pilot was killed when the Cessna 310 he was flying crashed near Cowskin Creek, in the 400 block of South Wetmore, shortly before 4 p.m. Friday, authorities said. That’s near Maple and Maize Road.
Wichita Fire Chief Ron Blackwell said the plane had recently departed from Wichita Eisenhower National Airport but experienced unspecified mechanical problems and was told to turn around.
Over air traffic control radio, the pilot of the Cessna 310 could be heard saying, “This is an emergency. I’ve got to come in.”
In the process of turning around, the plane crashed, Blackwell said. He also said it appeared the pilot maneuvered the plane to miss houses in the Dell, the neighborhood where the crash occurred.
No one on the ground was injured.
The plane departed from Eisenhower Airport at 3:45 p.m. en route to Centennial Airport in the Denver area, according to www.flightaware.com.
The first call about the crash came in at 3:47 p.m., a Sedgwick County dispatcher said.
Jeff Rathbun, a witness to the crash, said he was driving east on Maple when he noticed the airplane flying 150 to 200 feet above the trees, moments before it took a sharp downward turn.
“It was level like a normal plane would be,” Rathbun said. “And then all of a sudden it twisted and turned and went straight down.
“There wasn’t any sound – I didn’t hear any distress from the plane – and then it went behind the trees.”
When emergency crews arrived on the scene, the plane was in pieces and its pilot was pronounced dead.
People living in the area said most of the debris was in a wooded area behind the homes. Blackwell described it as a “fairly compact debris field.”
“There was significant damage to the aircraft upon crash,” he said. “We’ll try to secure it as best we can, and our investigators will determine the next steps.”
Knutson said he saw the plane come down as he was was sitting on a neighbor’s back porch on Wetmore Street. He said seeing the plane crash left him “so shocked the goosebumps ran all over” him.
“I took off running right away to it and … we could smell (aviation) gas,” Knutson said. “I knew as hard as that thing hit that nobody survived.”
Knutson said he saw the plane from about 600 yards in, and he thinks the pilot tried to steer away from houses in the area.
“Even though the engines really weren’t in power, they were turning, and he was really delivering that airplane to where he needed to have it,” Knutson said.
The plane landed about 25 yards away from a garage, Blackwell said. No houses were struck by debris.
The heavy scent of fuel hung in the air, but Blackwell said there was no fire. After consulting state environmental agencies, he said there was no risk of explosion from the gas.
An eyewitness who was in his car at Maple and Maize Road when the plane went down said he was also a pilot, and that witnessing the crash was a “sobering experience.”
“Anybody that flies should have a respect for and be scared of planes,” Hutchinson resident Eric Allen said. “As soon as you’re not concerned or fearful at times, then you’re dangerous.”
The Cessna 310 is registered to a Parker, Colo., company called Celestial Knights LLC, according to the Federal Aviation Administration registry and live airplane tracking site www.flightaware.com. It was built in 1972.
The identity of the person killed had not been officially released as of Friday evening.
The National Transportation Safety Board was notified about the crash and would be on the scene by Saturday morning, Blackwell said.
Blackwell said authorities were looking for anyone who might have taken cellphone video of the crash, or any businesses in the area that have security cameras that might have captured the crash.
Rathbun, who called 911, said he lives and works about a mile and a half from the area.
“I kept on waiting for a billow of smoke to come up” after the plane crashed, he said.
“It seemed surreal.”
Contributing: Jerry Siebenmark of The Eagle