The driver of a pickup truck and the pilot of a small plane that collided with the truck as it crossed a runway at the Knox County Regional Airport were both at fault in a crash that killed three young men in 2012, federal investigators concluded in a report released Friday.
The crash at the airport in Owls Head occurred shortly after sunset on Nov. 16, 2012. Stephen Turner, 63, of Camden was driving the truck across the runway and collided with the Cessna 172 single-engine plane as it was about to take off. The collision caused the plane to spin as it took flight, then nosedive about 2,000 feet away into a field next the airport, where it caught fire.
The pilot of the plane, William “B.J.” Hannigan, 24, of South Portland, and his two passengers – David Cheney, 22, of Beverly, Massachusetts, and Marcelo Rugini, 24, a foreign exchange student from Brazil – were killed.
Turner, a contract employee at the airport, told investigators that he radioed that he was crossing the runway and got no response. However, an investigation found that his radio was in the “off” position when it was examined after the crash.
Turner said he did not see the plane approach until it was too late to avoid the collision.
The final probable cause report issued Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Turner “failed to verify that the runway was not occupied by an airplane before crossing.”
The NTSB also faulted Hannigan, for proceeding with takeoff after the collision.
“Although the airplane was close to or perhaps past liftoff speed, the pilot likely could have stopped the airplane on the remaining 3,600 feet of paved runway following impact with the vehicle,” the report says.
The crash sparked debate among pilots and aviation experts about safety procedures at small airports.
The regional airport in Owls Head has no tower or air traffic controller to tell pilots when to land or take off. Radio communication between people in aircraft and other vehicles is encouraged, but not required. The only real regulation of airport operations is by the pilots and airport employees.
The crash was the 16th at the airport in the last 40 years, and the fourth fatal crash, according to the NTSB.
Hannigan had logged about 17 hours of solo flying and four hours of night flying before the crash, the NTSB said.
He was an engineering graduate student at the University of Maine, a member of the Maine Air National Guard and a Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brother.
Cheney also was a UMaine student and the president of the fraternity; Rugini was the fraternity’s education officer and a recent graduate.
In September, after almost a year of negotiating, the airport agreed to a nearly $4 million settlement for the victims’ families. The settlement was paid for largely by insurance companies representing Turner and the company he worked for, Penobscot Island Air. The settlement cleared Knox County, which manages the airport, of any liability.
Attempts to contact Hannigan’s family Friday were unsuccessful. Turner also could not be reached.
The crash prompted officials at the airport to make operational changes to improve safety, including requiring all airport vehicles to have beacon lights, recording all radio communications, and installing motion-activated cameras to record landings and departures.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: