Friday, March 23, 2007

DISASTER AT AIR SHOW - Gainesville pilot dies in fiery crash during aerobatics

TITUSVILLE - The TICO Warbird Airshow is expected to continue today even as National Transportation Safety Board officials arrive to investigate the death of an air show participant in a fiery crash Friday afternoon.

Authorities believe the pilot, Gainesville attorney Eilon Krugman-Kadi, died on impact when the L-39 Russian trainer jet he was flying crashed at 2:43 p.m. Friday on the northwest end of the east-west runway at Space Coast Regional Airport in rural Titusville. The 58-year-old is identified on the air show's program as a former Israeli fighter pilot.

The Federal Aviation Administration began investigating the crash Friday, Titusville Police Department spokesman Sgt. Todd Hutchinson said. Authorities on Friday did not say what might have caused the crash.

Linda McMullen, Krugman-Kadi's longtime girlfriend and mother of his 3-year-old daughter, Hanna, was taking a nap with her daughter at a nearby hotel when the crash occurred.

"He always said if he was going to go, he wanted to go doing something he loved," she said. "And he loved to fly. He was like a little boy."

He has two other children in Gainesville, Shane and Talia, both in their 20s.

The show, which was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. but was delayed by high winds and rain, had resumed at 2:30 p.m. after skies had cleared. The event is in its 30th year.

Krugman-Kadi's jet was the second performance of the show, and he had just begun his aerobatics. Witnesses said the jet was completing a loop but appeared as if it did not have enough altitude to complete the maneuver.

"It crashed, it crashed," said spectator Tom Erikson of Melbourne seconds after the plane went down. Billowing clouds of black smoke appeared moments later.

Erikson said the jet was doing a loop, and it looked like the pilot was trying to pull out of it but was too low to the ground.

"I said to myself, 'That looks too low.' Why was he so low to the ground?" Erikson said. "This was a disaster."

Emergency crews, at the air show as a precautionary measure, rushed to the wreckage immediately after the crash.

The air show announcer asked viewers to bring any home video to the announcer's stage so officials could determine what happened.

Many guests left quickly after the wreck.

Teri McMillan of Titusville said she had relatives visiting her from Baltimore who came to the air show with their children. They had to walk away immediately because the children were so upset by the crash.

"You want to have fun. You know this is a reality but . . ." she said, her voice trailing off into tears.

As an air show vendor, Ken Bolen has seen plenty of jets and wasn't watching Krugman-Kadi's performance closely. But he heard the pitch of the engine change as if the jet was trying hard to power up.

Bolen, a former pilot, said it appeared as if the aircraft lost its lift.

"He just did not have enough power," Bolen said.

Standing atop a car-hauling truck at the Allied Systems railyard near the airport, Drew Hardy watched the L-39 jet swoop over the parking lot just above the treetops -- so close that he could see the pilot's helmet.

"He was within about 100 yards," Hardy said, recalling the aircraft's path as it zoomed toward the airport. "Then he come in at like a 45-degree embankment. And he was coming in fast. I was like, man, now that is a hard turn.

"I took two steps, and it was like, bam! It was the loudest thing I've ever heard."

The Titusville car hauler was working off Tico Road, about a half-mile east of the northern end of the Space Coast Regional Airport runway. He initially thought the explosion was a simulated bomb that was part of the air show.

Across the street from the airport, Helicopter Adventures Inc. co-workers Camilla Aalykke and Anisha Hopkinson walked outside and stood on the sidewalk during the pilot's ill-fated routine. They watched the plane vanish into "a big ball of fire."

"It went up this way and over back again," Aalykke said, gesturing with her hand toward the airport, "and it just went straight down. We couldn't see it until it came out of the clouds and crashed into the trees. Pretty surreal.

"It was a pretty big fireball, way over the treetops," Aalykke continued. "We were looking for the (parachute), and there was no chute. He didn't have time for that, I think."

Hutchinson said there was a brief fire from the crash. A brush truck from the Division of Forestry has been called to the scene so that it could clear a path to the woods for emergency vehicles, he said.

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