Probe Under Way of Plane Crash That Killed Astronaut
EARLE, Ark. (AP) _ Federal investigators searched for clues Sunday into the fiery stunt-plane crash that killed astronaut S. David Griggs, a space shuttle veteran who was scheduled to pilot a mission in November.
Griggs, 49, died Saturday when the World War II-vintage plane he was flying slammed into a wheat field and exploded while he practiced stunts for a weekend air show, witnesses and investigators said.
″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.″
Another witness, William H. Wooden, was working in his yard near the private air service’s hangars. ″He was cutting up, flying upside down and all kinds of ways, every kind of way I’ve ever seen them fly those things,″ he said.
Wooden said he heard the plane’s engine stop running. He looked up and saw the propeller-driven North American T-6 training aircraft plummeting to the ground.
Sandra Pearson, supervisor of the Federal Aviation Administration flight service office in Little Rock, said, ″There is never any initial indication of what caused a crash. It always takes an investigation to try to reconstruct what happened.″
Besides the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board and NASA had investigators at the crash site, said Peter Kerwin of the FAA.
Griggs, a mission specialist on the shuttle Discovery in April 1985, counted flying among his hobbies, according to a biography issued by NASA. An astronaut since August 1979, Griggs had been in training to pilot shuttle flight number 33 aboard Discovery in November, NASA said.
NASA said Griggs, a former Navy test pilot and combat veteran, had logged more than 9,500 hours of flying time and had flown more than 45 types of aircraft.
Three other flights, in July, September and October, are scheduled before the November launch. NASA spokesman Jeff Carr said a replacement for Griggs would have to be named within the next week or so, adding that it should not be a problem to draw from the pool of available astronauts.
Carr said the space agency placed no restrictions on what astronauts could do in their spare time, including risky activities.
″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,″ he said.
Griggs, who was rehearsing stunts for an air show later Saturday at Clarksville, Ark., was killed on impact, said state police Cpl. Rick Dickinson, a spokesman for the Arkansas State Police.
Griggs was to have been the lead performer at the air show, said the show’s organizer, Robert Hudson. ’None of us knew him, but we were looking forward to having him.″
Hudson said he was told Griggs ″was very good at flying (the plane) and was, if anything, overqualified. And I guess that’s what shocked us when we got the news.
″We found out right before the show started, and we were the only ones that knew,″ Hudson said. ″We kind of kept it under our hat. We went ahead and we had a good show.″
The plane was registered to Greg McNeely, a friend of the astronaut who was to have participated in the show, the FAA spokesman said.
McNeeley’s family, which also owns McNeely Charter Service and a private airfield about 150 yards from the crash site, remained unavailable for comment Sunday, according to a woman who answered the company’s telephone. The woman, who would not give her name, said she had been told to refer questions to NASA.
Griggs, who lived in the Houston area, is survived by his wife Karen and two daughters, Alison Marie, 17, and Carre Anne, 15.