Vineyard residents this week mourned the loss of James Rogers of Oak Bluffs, who died when his self-built aircraft crashed shortly after noon Sunday in the Manuel F. Corellus State Forest in West Tisbury.
Mr. Rogers, 55, had just taken off from Runway 6 at the Martha's Vineyard Airport when his Lancair 360 single-engine airplane banked toward Runway 15 and then came down in the nearby state forest.
Acting Vineyard airport manager Sean Flynn said Mr. Rogers did not survive the impact.
Sunday was the first day Mr. Rogers had flown the airplane. The fatal crash came on the aircraft's second flight of the day. Early accounts point to possible engine trouble prior to the crash.
A licensed pilot and airplane mechanic, Mr. Rogers had spent the past three years building the airplane from a kit.
His friend Denys Wortman of Vineyard Haven came to the airport to videotape the airplane's inaugural flights, and was filming when the plane went down.
Federal and state aviation officials are investigating the accident. The National Transportation Safety Board, the lead agency investigating the crash, likely will issue a preliminary report within the next two weeks.
Mr. Rogers was the husband of Andrea Rogers, a well-known Vineyard figure who is the organizer of the Island artisan fairs.
A funeral service for Mr. Rogers is set for 11 a.m. tomorrow at the Chapman, Cole and Gleason Funeral Home on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in Oak Bluffs. The Rev. Michael Nagle will officiate. A celebration of Mr. Rogers' life and potluck supper will follow at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury.
The death of Mr. Rogers hit the close-knit Vineyard aviation community hard.
"Jim was a great guy," said Ted Stanley, a West Tisbury resident and fellow Vineyard pilot. "He was always upbeat. He would give you the shirt off his back if you asked for it," he added.
"This is a shock," Mr. Wortman said. "Jimmy was a wonderful person. The Island lost a treasure."
Mr. Rogers first took his Lancair 360, a sophisticated airplane capable of flying 220 miles per hour, into the air about 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
Mr. Flynn related what happened next to airport commission chairman Jesse (Jack) Law 3rd, who shared the information with his fellow commissioners.
Mr. Rogers "took his plane up in the morning for the first ride," Mr. Law stated. "He called the tower and said he was having trouble with the throttle. At that time, he landed the plane with no trouble."
Mr. Rogers took time to work on the engine and then took off just after noon on the second flight, according to Mr. Law. Weather conditions were clear, with wind out of the east-northeast at nine miles per hour.
This time, Mr. Law said, Mr. Rogers had trouble right away and called the tower, saying he needed to land as soon as possible. The tower told the pilot which runway was open.
Steve Berlucchi of West Tisbury, who was walking in the state forest with his wife, Maeve Sheehan, saw what happened next.
"We were 200 yards from that corner of the airport property," Mr. Berlucchi said. "We both looked up to see a plane 100 feet off the round and losing altitude.
"When I saw it going from my left to the right, which would be from the airport heading toward Old County Road in West Tisbury, and it was traveling along the fire lane, I said to my wife, 'That plane is going down,' and I thought it was going to land on the fire lane.
"I started running toward it. The engine was sputtering. And as I was starting to run, it banked hard to the left and crashed."
The aircraft burned after impact, sending up a cloud of black smoke.
Mr. Berlucchi said airport firefighters were first on the scene. "I think they had it out before any other engines got to the scene," he said of the fire.
Firefighters and police from around the Island responded to the crash scene.
On Monday, the wreckage was removed to a secure area at the airport for a detailed examination, said Todd Gunther, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.
Mr. Gunther said the agency likely will complete an accident investigation report within six to nine months. The report will be forwarded to agency board members, who 60 to 90 days later will issue a statement of probable cause.
Based on its investigation of the crash, Mr. Gunther said, the agency also can issue general recommendations to the aviation community concerning equipment or pilot practices.
Participants in the crash investigation include the Federal Aviation Administration, the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission, and Lycoming Aircraft Engines, the manufacturer of the engine in the downed plane.
The tragic crash came on a day that began with high hopes and anticipation. That morning, Mr. Rogers called Mr. Wortman to say he was taking the Lancair 360 into the air.
"Hey, it's a go," Mr. Wortman recalled Mr. Rogers telling him. Mr. Wortman headed for the airport with his video camera.
"I watched him build this plane over the past three years," Mr. Wortman said Monday. "This was a very sophisticated aircraft, not a little flivver . . . He had done a magnificent job of building this thing."
The Federal Aviation Administration issued an airworthiness certificate for the aircraft in January. An aircraft must receive such a certificate before it can be taken aloft.
Kit-built airplanes are among the aircraft categorized by the Federal Aviation Administration as experimental. But Dick Knapinski, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisc., said the name can be a misnomer.
"Planes often are tried and true designs," he said of the experimentals. "Sometimes hundreds or thousands have built through the years."
People build their own aircraft for a variety of reasons, Mr. Knapinski said. Not only do they tend to cost less than factory-built aircraft, but a kit-built aircraft may offer a design not available in the marketplace, with better speed or efficiency.
Also, he said some people enjoy building their own airplane, just as some like working on cars or home improvement projects.
He said engines are sold separately from the aircraft. About 26,000 amateur-built planes are registered with the FAA, Mr. Knapinski said.
Lancair International Inc., based in Redmond, Ore., is the manufacturer of the Lancair 360.
An estimated 250 Lancair 360s exist, according to David Hickman, a pilot with High Performance Aircraft Training Inc., a Clearwater, Fla.-based company under contract to provide pilot training to Lancair customers. Mr. Hickman estimates that several dozen more Lancair 360s are under construction. He said Lancair discontinued the 360 model at least five years ago, replacing it with a more powerful airplane.
Mr. Flynn said Mr. Rogers was a fixture at the airport, where he was building a hangar that he intended to manage. He worked as a mechanic and flew his own Cessna 172 as well as an antique plane circa 1933.
When heavy snow hit the airport last winter, Mr. Flynn said, Mr. Rogers donated his time to keep the airport's snow removal equipment running. "He wanted to be part of the team," he said.
When new air tower controllers would arrive at the airport, Mr. Rogers would volunteer to take them up to familiarize them with the airport and its surroundings.
"He was a pillar in our small aviation community, as he probably was in the larger community," Mr. Flynn said. "His love and joy was aviation."