HAMMOND — The widow of a Denham Springs man killed in a plane crash at the Hammond airport returned to the site Friday morning to grieve, while her attorney readied a team of investigators to determine what went wrong at takeoff Wednesday afternoon.
G. Scott Vezina, of the Feldman Shepherd law firm in Philadelphia, said the family of passenger John Harris, a 48-year-old aircraft broker, hired the firm after the plane Harris had chartered for a business trip to Atlanta crashed within seconds of leaving the runway.
The pilot, whom KATC-TV said family and friends identified as Desmond Milligan, of Lafayette, also died in the crash.
Vezina said the right engine of the 1973 Cessna 421 twin-engine plane stalled just as the plane was leaving the ground, which Vezina said is “the worst possible time” to lose an engine.
Two mechanics at the Hammond Air Center, near the intersection of Hammond Northshore Regional Airport’s two runways, heard “a loud pop” when the engine blew and saw the plane nose-dive into the edge of a wooded area near the northwest corner of the airfield, Vezina said.
Pamela Harris, who had dropped her husband off at the airport for his flight, returned to the airfield within minutes of the crash and saw the plane engulfed in flames, Vezina said. One of the couple’s three children was with her.
“Planes like this aren’t supposed to crash. Engines aren’t supposed to stall. And pilots are supposed to know how to safely handle their planes,” Vezina, a licensed pilot, said Friday morning. “It looks like nothing went the way it was supposed to. We’re going to do what’s right by the family and find out why.”
Vezina, who has handled numerous plane crash cases, including that of late recording artist Aaliyah Haughton, said his firm has assembled a team of accident reconstructionists, mechanics and metallurgists to examine evidence from the crash, alongside National Transportation Safety Board investigators.
NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said the attorney’s team would have access to the agency’s reports but not to the physical evidence itself.
Crews disassembled the plane Friday morning for transport off the airfield. Williams said the wreckage will be moved to a secure location for further examination and testing.
The NTSB expects to issue a preliminary report within seven to 10 days of the crash, he said. The final report could take a year to complete.
Vezina said Harris was “a true family man and a great community member.”
“He loved to fly and always said he loved his kids more than air,” Vezina said. “We lost a good one.”
Burial services will be held in Denham Springs next week, pending completion of the Tangipahoa Parish coroner’s work, Vezina said.
A coroner’s official confirmed Friday afternoon that Harris was one of the two crash victims but said paperwork was still pending before the pilot’s identity could be officially confirmed.
A Federal Aviation Administration official reported Thursday that the pilot had declared an emergency just after takeoff and appeared to be trying to return to the airfield when the crash occurred.
Air traffic control recordings indicate the plane, tail number N33FA, was cleared for takeoff headed northwest on the longer of the airport’s two runways, just before 3:45 p.m. Wednesday.
Less than a minute later, the pilot gave the distress call: “Mayday, mayday, mayday. We gotta come back (inaudible).”
The air traffic controller asked the pilot to repeat, and again the pilot called “Mayday, mayday, mayday,” and asked for runway clearance.
“November three (sic) foxtrot alpha, Runway 1-8 wind calm. Clear land,” the controller responded, indicating the shorter runway was open for the plane to make a southbound landing.
The controller had barely finished his response when there was a shout, then silence as the pilot’s audio cut out.
The plane crashed at the edge of a wooded area between the end of one runway and the approach to the other.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen, and call her at (225) 336-6981.