News from Fort Lauderdale, June 15, 2005

Pilots of DC-3 lauded for controlled crash on Fort Lauderdale street

They knew plane was in trouble from the takeoff.

By Jean-Paul Renaud and Ken Kaye
Staff Writers
Posted June 15 2005

The moment their old cargo plane left the ground, the pilots knew they were in deep trouble.

The left engine suddenly died, the DC-3 wouldn't climb and it narrowly missed office buildings just east of Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.

But at the controls were the captain, Charles Riggs, 62, a seasoned Vietnam chopper pilot, and an experienced co-pilot, Charles Wirt, 56.

They quickly decided to forge straight ahead rather than attempt to turn back. That allowed them to maintain airspeed and control through a crash-landing three miles away on Northeast 56th Street in Fort Lauderdale on Monday.

"We just went wham into the ground," said Wirt, who was wearing a neck brace. "I had a fleeting thought of how bad it was going to hurt."

Riggs, of Pembroke Pines; Wirt, of Miami; and a passenger, Hector Espinoza, of Lantana, escaped the aircraft just before it erupted into flames.

On Tuesday, the three recounted the ordeal from Holy Cross Hospital.

They had been bound for Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas, a regular run for Rigg's charter company, Air Pony Express Inc., based at Executive Airport.

When the engine died and the plane lost altitude, they first scanned the beach before settling on the quiet Coral Ridge Isles neighborhood.

"We didn't have time to do a whole lot," said Wirt, who has been flying since 1971. "There was no way in hades we were going back to the airport. We were hoping to make it to the beach, but that was obviously impossible."

Wirt said he saw Northeast 56th Street as being the best possible place to put down. Riggs lined up the 12-ton, twin-engine aircraft with the tree-lined street, reduced the airspeed to 90 mph, and then forced the plane down.

In slowing just before touchdown, the pilots were able to reduce the skidding distance, and the DC-3 came to a quick halt that prevented anyone on the ground from getting seriously hurt, though it clipped several parked vehicles and crunched a few trees. A house also suffered some minor damage.

The plane, with a cargo of 3,200 pounds of granite, held together through the crash. But the pilots knew with all the fuel and ruptured wings it would likely explode.

Espinoza, who was headed to the Bahamas to install the granite, broke through a cockpit window. Wirt and Riggs quickly followed. Then the plane burst into a fireball, setting a vehicle and a tree on fire.

"I'm feeling great because I'm alive," Espinoza said. "It never went through my brain that I was going to die. For the first time, I'm confidant God is with me."

Riggs and Wirt faced another major problem during the harrowing, one-minute flight: They told investigators they were unable to "feather," or lock the left propeller to a stop, when the engine died.

That would have reduced drag and made it easier for the plane to fly. Instead, the propeller kept spinning, possibly producing enough drag to force the plane down.

Although none of the plane's occupants was seriously injured, they remained at Holy Cross on Tuesday. Espinoza suffered an injury to his right knee, left arm and right foot. Wirt aggravated a previous injury to his back. Riggs injured his right knee.

The National Transportation Safety Board is trying to determine why the engine failed. On Monday, accident investigators carefully documented the wreckage, which is to be trucked to a hangar for closer inspection.

The left engine, a Wright 1820 radial, might be shipped to its manufacturer to see why it quit, said safety board spokeswoman Lauren Peduzzi.

Authorities also want to know how much total weight the plane was carrying in cargo and fuel, as that might be a factor in why it was unable to maintain altitude with only one engine running.

Air Pony Express has been involved in no previous accidents and has had no violations, said Roland Herwig, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Riggs has been flying for 44 years. He flew helicopters in Vietnam and subsequently earned his airline transport rating, a flight instructor rating and a commercial pilot license. He also is a licensed aircraft mechanic, according to federal records.

Fort Lauderdale Executive neighbors, who have complained that the DC-3 frequently has flown too low over their homes, might not agree, but pilots credited Riggs with an amazing display of airmanship.

"To me, the guy deserves a medal for not killing a bunch of people," said Alan Cohn, of Plantation, a former Eastern Airlines captain who has flown heavy transports as a cargo pilot. "He did a hell of a job."

Cohn, chief pilot of Airojet Charter, a company at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, saw the doomed DC-3 take off on Monday afternoon and knew it was destined to crash.

"After the plane crossed the end of the runway, I could hear the engine sputter," he said. "He wasn't gaining any altitude. It was just ugly."

"He was able to duck and dodge obstacles and get it down without hurting anything," said Keith Mackey, a former Pan Am captain who has flown everything from DC-3s to 747s. "There's something to be said for his ability."

That Riggs flew in Vietnam likely helped him maintain the composure needed to pull off such a tricky landing, said Russ Boy Sr., a former Army Vietnam helicopter pilot.

"He knew the problem was serious enough that he had to put it on the ground, and I'll tell you what: He did an incredible job," said Boy, executive vice president of National Jets at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. "It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen."

Boy said it also helped that Riggs was flying a DC-3, an aircraft so sturdy it still is flying, even though its heyday was as an airliner in the 1930s and 1940s.

"It was an absolutely well-built airplane," he said. "There are lesser planes that might not have survived a crash like that."

The plane that crashed actually was a Douglas Super R4D-8, which was a supped-up U.S. Navy version of the DC-3.

Riggs said he and Wirt simply did their jobs -- in a tough situation.

"I really don't see us as heroes," he said, adding that distinction should go to the police officers and firefighters who responded to the crash.

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