Part of the fuselage of an airplane rests on a softball field where it crashed, in Burlington, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. Assistant Police Chief Chris Verdeck said that 57-year-old David Gamble of Greensboro died when his plane came down around 6 a.m. Wednesday about 5 miles northeast of the Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport. The plane was a Pilatus PC-12 owned by Labcorp, a medical testing company in Burlington. A spokeswoman with the Federal Aviation Administration says the plane was heading to Morristown, N.J.
Photo credit: (AP Photo/Burlington Times-News, Sam Roberts)
BURLINGTON - A Greensboro pilot killed when his plane crashed on a softball field Wednesday morning might have intentionally aimed for open ground to avoid further loss of life.
Witnesses reported seeing the plane circle in the air before crashing at North Park at 838 Sharpe Road about 6 a.m.
The Pilatus PC-12, a single-engine turboprop, had taken off from Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport moments earlier and was bound for Morristown (N.J.) Municipal Airport.
Burlington police identified the pilot as David Gamble, 57, of Greensboro.
No passengers were on board.
It was unclear Wednesday why the plane crashed.
The plane is owned by LabCorp, whose headquarters are in Burlington. The plane was carrying interoffice mail.
Gamble's LinkedIn profile said he has been a pilot for LabCorp since May 2008 and has flown medical specimens on two small planes.
The profile also lists Gamble as president of Al-Cin, a Greensboro textile company.
Burlington's 911 center started getting calls at 5:57 a.m. from people who saw the plane go down.
"I just witnessed a plane crash," one caller told a dispatcher. "I witnessed it start to circle, circle circle, then it went straight down into the ground. I can't even believe I just witnessed it. The sky turned red."
Another caller reported hearing "an engine revving up and down." Other witnesses reported hearing a loud noise.
Emergency responders found the plane at 6:05 a.m. near the intersection of Sharpe Road and Melrose Drive, about five miles northeast of the airport.
Debris covered the infield of the softball field. Many pieces were on fire.
The field is surrounded by trees and numerous homes.
"I'm very fortunate he hit that spot," said Larry Poteat, who lives across from the softball field. "I'm surprised he didn't hit nobody's home. He must have still been navigating the plane."
Steve McRae, who lives next to the softball field, also thought the pilot's crash-landing site was deliberate.
"The pilot landed there on purpose to keep from hitting the houses," he said. "We're lucky."
Chris Verdeck, Burlington's assistant police chief, called the pilot a "brave, brave man" for his actions.
"It appears the pilot did everything he could to avoid hitting the houses," Verdeck said. "This could have been a huge tragedy had he not taken the steps he did."
Verdeck was uncertain if the pilot made any distress calls.
Dan Danieley, manager of the Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport, said there was no one at the airport when the plane took off and crashed.
The plane had 400 gallons of fuel when it went down.
Verdeck said no fuel leaked into a nearby drainage ditch. LabCorp has hired an environmental services company to clean up the spilled fuel.
Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board investigators arrived at the crash scene Wednesday.
Jay Neylon, an air safety investigator with the NTSB, said federal officials will need about three days at the crash site.
The wreckage will be moved to a warehouse before tonight's storm.
The agency's preliminary report is due within two weeks.
Staff Writer Joe Gamm contributed to this report.
Contact Sarah Newell Williamson at 373-7076, and follow @snewell on Twitter.
The pilot who was killed Wednesday in a Burlington might have tried to land the plane in an open space to avoid further loss of life.
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