Sailplane pilot killed in Washington County

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A sailplane that was preparing to land in Washington County crashed into a home in North Bethlehem, killing the 73-year-old pilot.

The Washington County Coroner's office identified the victim as Francis J. Smith of McKees Rocks. Friends of the victim said he was an experienced pilot and a retired US Airways mechanic.

The Federal Aviation Administration and state police in Washington County are investigating the accident. Mr. Smith was licensed to pilot gliders and power planes.

   

Locator Map: Crash site

   

At around 3:24 p.m. yesterday, police and emergency personnel responded to a call at 264 Leatherman Bridge Road.

Washington County 911 dispatcher, said the victim apparently lost control of the sailplane and crashed into the home.

Holly Baker, a FAA spokeswoman, said the victim was piloting a 1975 Schweizer, Model SGS 1-35 when the glider crashed onto the roof.

Baker said all sailplanes, also known as gliders, are required to be registered with the FAA.

No one was inside the home at the time of the incident, she said.

David Boehmer, treasurer and chief tow pilot of the Pittsburgh Soaring Club, which flies out of the Bandel Airport in Eighty Four, said he was waiting to take off in his glider when he saw Mr. Smith crash.

"He was preparing to land and he was in the final approach when the left wing just dropped and he crashed into a tree and onto the house," said Mr. Boehmer.

"He had enough altitude and I thought he could recover. but he couldn't. I was on the ground waiting to take off and we just jumped into the car and rushed out to the scene," Mr. Boehmer said.

Mr. Boehmer said Mr. Smith was an experienced pilot.

Mr. Boehmer said Mr. Smith retired from US Airways as a mechanic. He said Mr. Smith has been a member of the Soaring club for more than 25 years.

"He was extremely careful," said George Blum, who also is a member of the Soaring Club and was in the air during the time of the accident. "He was a very competent pilot. He had been flying power planes but most recently gliders."

"We fly in a 5 to 10 mile radius of the airport," said Mr. Boehmer. "It was a clear with very little wind. We had at least a dozen flights today."

Sailplanes normally are towed aloft by a powered aircraft and then released when they reach a particular altitude.

Crashes are an uncommon occurrence and fatalities are even more rare among gliders. Since 2001, there have never been more than seven fatal crashes in a year, according to the FAA Web site.


Nate Guidry can be reached at nguidry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3865.


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