BY DAVID HENCH

The Portland Press Herald

William Gaddis Sr. was taking the ultralight aircraft he had built out for its inaugural flight Sunday when it crashed into trees across the street from his backyard landing strip.

Local ultralight enthusiasts say crashing into trees can be a resourceful maneuver when one of the single-seat aircraft develop mechanical problems and preferable to landing hard on the ground in some cases.

Gaddis had taken off about 10 minutes earlier from his home at 367 Mill Road in North Yarmouth when the small aircraft went down in tall trees at 354 Mill Road, according to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, which responded to the crash.

Gaddis’ son and a neighbor made it to the crash site and saw that Gaddis was inside the plane, which was suspended about 60 feet off the ground by branches. They urged him to stay, but Gaddis climbed free and actually made it down about 20 feet before he fell, either after losing his grip or having a branch break under him, the sheriff’s office said.

Gaddis, who is 75, fell about 40 feet.

He was still alive when North Yarmouth rescue arrived and when he was flown by LifeFlight helicopter to Maine Medical Center. He died late Sunday.

Gaddis’ family could not be reached for comment Monday, but local ultralight flyers say landing in the trees is not necessarily a bad decision.

“You can actually glide or fly into the treetops. There’s a high probability most of the time the trees will support the weight of the aircraft,” said Shawn Moody, a former candidate for governor who has flown ultralights and light sport planes extensively in Gorham. “You want to go into hardwood trees. There are very small branches that will catch the wings and fuselage and support it, really, and bend. Pine trees will not give. The wings will break off,” he said.

“When we would fly ultralights, we would actually carry rope inside for situations like this,” to aid in the descent from the canopy, he said.

The ultralights are often powered by two-cycle snowmobile engines, and they can be prone to having mechanical problems, especially the first time out, he said.

Moody said ultralight fliers can be a fragmented group, and he did not know Gaddis. No pilot’s license is required to fly the small craft, as long they meet the restrictions set out by the Federal Aviation Administration. They must be single-seat aircraft, weigh no more than 254 pounds empty, carry only 5 gallons of fuel and go no faster than 64 mph.

Darlene Doughty, vice president of the Yankee Ultralight Flyers, based in Seacoast New Hampshire, said it’s important for pilots to realize that their simple engines can cut out at any time, and to plan ahead.

Ultralight pilots know that landing in trees can be a safe maneuver, as long as there hardwoods with a leafy canopy.

“It can be one of the safest things to do,” she said. “You better be looking for soft fuzzy trees” she added.

The urge to climb free of a small plane suspended tenuously in the branches can be overpowering, said John Pompeo, another flyer and a friend of Moody’s. When he was in his 20s and new to flying, Pompeo crashed his Phantom Ultralight into the tops of trees. The aircraft fell through the canopy before finally catching about 20 feet off the ground.

With gasoline pouring from the ruptured tank, Pompeo unstrapped himself and jumped. He survived without injury and chalks it up to his youth.

“It’s kind of natural instinct when you’re in that situation. The natural instinct is to try to get out of the plane,” he said. In his case, the crash happened on a hot day, when the air is lighter, giving the propeller less thrust and the wings less lift.

It’s unclear whether that contributed to Gaddis’ crash. Temperatures Sunday were in the 80s, though by 7 p.m. it would have cooled down somewhat.

The case remains under investigation by the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.


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