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Astronaut Was ‘Clowning Around’ Before Crash

June 19, 1989

EARLE, Ark. (AP) _ Space shuttle astronaut S. David Griggs was performing aerial stunts before his World War II vintage plane crashed in a wheat field, killing him, witnesses said.

Investigators waded into the knee-high stalks of wheat as they tried to determine what caused Saturday morning’s crash.

Griggs, 49, who was scheduled to pilot a November shuttle mission, was practicing with the propeller-driven North American T-6 trainer for a weekend air show, witnesses and investigators said.

″He was cutting up, flying upside down and all kinds of ways, every kind of way I’ve ever seen them fly those things,″ said William H. Wooden, who was working in his yard when the plane crashed.

Wooden said he heard the engine stop.

″It looked like he was clowning around,″ said Otis Barker, who was working in his garden about 150 yards from the crash site, about 20 miles west of Memphis, Tenn. ″He’d go up, then shut off the motor and fire it up again.″

Sandra Pearson, a Federal Aviation Administration supervisor, said Sunday the cause of the crash was not yet apparent.

The FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board and National Aeronautics and Space Administration had investigators at the site, according to the FAA’s Peter Kerwin.

Robert Hudson, organizer of the air show at Clarksville, said the astronaut’s death left him and other pilots shaken. Hudson said he was told that Griggs, who logged 9,500 hours of flying, ″could really fly the airplane real well and that everybody would be pleased. It was exciting.

″Of course, he didn’t make it. It was a real shock to us,″ Hudson said.

″It kind of put a lump in my throat, if not my stomach. But we still had the show to do, we couldn’t call it off. We went ahead and we had a good show, but there was that fear I was feeling, and you know, there’s a certain amount of risk anyway,″ Hudson said.

The stunt plane was registered to Greg McNeely, a friend of Griggs’ who was to have participated in the show, the FAA said.

The McNeelys were not available for comment Sunday. A woman who answered the phone at McNeely Charter Service said she had been told to refer questions to NASA.

A NASA spokesman, Jeff Carr, said the agency did not restrict what the astronauts did in their spare time.

″You can’t lock these guys in their houses. These guys have thousands of hours of flying experience. They take a greater risk driving down the Gulf Freeway in Houston than by flying. There are no restrictions on piloting,″ Carr said from Houston.

The crash would not affect November’s launch, and a replacement would be named within two weeks, Carr said.

Flying was a hobby for Griggs, who served as a mission specialist on the shuttle Discovery in April 1985, according to a NASA biography. He had been an astronaut since August 1979, the space agency said.

Griggs, a native of Portland, Ore., was appointed chief of the Shuttle Training Aircraft Operations Office in January 1976, with responsibilities that included operational use of the shuttle trainer. He served in the Navy, including two combat tours in Southeast Asia, and a stint as a Navy test pilot.

Griggs, who lived in the Houston area, is survived by his wife, Karen, and daughters, Alison Marie, 17, and Carre Anne, 15.

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