GONZALES — A single-engine Cessna 120 crash-landed in an open field between St. Elizabeth Hospital and a hotel south of La. 30 in Ascension Parish on Friday after the pilot encountered some kind of distress with his aircraft engine.
Michael Graham, 57, of Baton Rouge, who is a certified flight instructor, was taken to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge with minor to moderate injuries, according to Gonzales police.
Graham had taken off from Louisiana Regional Airport in nearby Burnside for a short ride in the fixed-wing plane. He was waiting for friends to arrive at the airport so he could fly them to Destin, Florida, one of the friends said.
Jimmy Nunnally, 55, of Baton Rouge, who arrived at the scene a few hours after the crash, said he had spoken with Graham in the morning about a planned flight to Destin but told Graham he and his wife could not get to the airport until 1 p.m.
“So, he said, ‘Well, great. I have some time. I’ll go out in my little Cessna and play around,’ ” Nunnally said.
Gonzales police Detective Sgt. Steven Nethken said that not long after takeoff, witnesses reported the plane appeared to be experiencing some kind of distress and Graham tried to land in the field about noon.
The incident is the third time an aircraft has crashed in Ascension since June. Another pilot went down June 2 near the Diversion Canal and again on Aug. 30 in St. Amant in his ultra-light. The pilot survived both crashes.
Janet Gonzales, manager of the Louisiana Regional Airport, said Graham has been a fixture at the general aviation airport since the mid-1990s and has other aircraft and a business, Graham Aviation, there. Graham Aviation is the registered owner of the crashed plane, Federal Aviation Administration records show.
Gonzales said she didn’t know when Graham took off or where he was headed. Graham did not file a flight plan at the airport and was not required to file one under the conditions at the time.
She added that the model of Cessna is not the kind of plane one would take on a long trip, but she said the plane, which has a third landing wheel on the tail, is designed for soft air fields.
Gonzales echoed the comments of police, Nunnally and other friends who also showed up at the crash scene in saying that Graham is a well-regarded pilot.
Though wide open with fairly low-cut grass, the field had tractor ruts and sits inside a somewhat developed commercial area along La. 30.
“It takes a skilled pilot who could land it like that,” Nunnally said of the crash.
He added he would not fly with anyone else but Graham.
FAA officials could be seen checking the plane and taking pictures Friday afternoon. Police would not allow the media or the public to get too close to the plane, however, because of what they said was spilled aviation fuel surrounding it.
Tony Molinaro, an FAA spokesman in Chicago, said the plane is reported to have substantial damage. He said the cause of the crash is unknown and will have to be determined.
“It could take a few weeks to a few months to complete an investigation,” Molinaro said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.