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Parachutists, Man on Porch Die When Plane Crashes Into House

September 12, 1995

SHACKLEFORDS, Va. (AP) _ Gina Arbogast had climbed aboard the plane ready to make her first formation jump with her skydiving friends. They, like her, lived to plunge thousands of feet toward Earth.

But something went terribly wrong Sunday shortly after the twin-engine Beechcraft made its way into the sky in a gathering dusk.

The plane banked, then dived into a house in a dense pine forest, killing all 11 people on board and a man who was sitting on his back porch, watching his son play.

Miss Arbogast, a 28-year-old nurse from Virginia Beach, had recently completed training with the Peninsula Skydivers, a club based at the West Point Airport, where the plane took off. Everyone on board but the pilot was a club member.

``She loved the beach, and she loved skydiving,″ said Miss Arbogast’s mother, Cathy Arbogast of Charlottesville. ``It was a passion.″

The skydivers club had leased the plane since June, said club treasurer Carol Clay. The plane had no record of crashes or safety problems, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived Monday to pick through the charred wreckage along a country road about 40 miles east of Richmond.

At a news conference Monday evening, NTSB vice chairman Robert Francis said two pilot witnesses reported ``some sound of the engine malfunctioning″ as the plane took off. Those witness said the aircraft turned right after climbing to somewhere between 500 feet and 1,000 feet, then banked sharply and turned nose down, he said.

Francis said there was evidence in the badly damaged cockpit controls that the right engine had been turned off, but he said the engines needed closer inspection. Investigators have records of the plane’s engine maintenance, but have not yet reviewed them.

Investigators hoped to wrap up their on-site investigation Tuesday, but a final report on the cause of the crash will take about six months.

Ms. Clay and other club members said the plane had made 18 flights carrying skydivers without a problem during the weekend _ not an unusually high number when the weather is clear, members said.

Nick Christian, 31, was the pilot who club members said flew for most jumps.

``Nick was a good guy, and a good pilot,″ said club member Ed Bibb of Richmond. ``If he couldn’t save it, nobody could.″

The Beechcraft Queen Air BE-65 made nearly a straight dive into the home of Vincent Harris, who had been sitting on his porch. None of the tall trees near the house had been clipped by the plane.

Harris’ 8-year-old son, Vincent Jr., wasn’t hurt. Harris’ wife had just left to pick up their 15-year-old daughter, Velicia, when the plane came down.

``You could hear the engine cutting on and cutting off,″ said Harris’ brother, Michael Harris, who was two houses away.

He tried helplessly to save his brother but said he was driven back by flames. He said the plane swerved from side to side before plunging to the ground.

Harris was a trucker who moonlighted as a Baptist preacher, said his pastor, the Rev. Keith Parham of First Baptist Church.

``That’s pretty much what he was about,″ Parham said. ``Everywhere he went, he was trying to introduce people to the Lord.″

There was no black box recorder on the plane that might give clues to the cause of the crash; the device is not required on such planes.

The plane was owned by Stephan S. Rose and Rebecca P. Smith, both of Newport News. The plane, built in 1966, was ``a reasonably old aircraft″ but not unusually old, said Robert Francis, NSTB vice chairman.

The skydiving club also used another plane of the same model. It sustained minor damage in a landing accident April 15, according to FAA records.

The last two fatal plane crashes involving skydivers occurred in 1992. All 12 people were killed when a twin-engine Beechcraft B-18 went down near Hinckley, Ill., on Sept. 7, 1992. The NTSB blamed the crash on engine failure caused by poor maintenance and inspection.

Sixteen people died when a De Havilland Twin Otter DHC 6-200 carrying 22 people crashed during takeoff on April 22, 1992, at Perris Valley Airport 70 miles east of Los Angeles. Federal investigators blamed that crash on pilot error, dirty fuel and overloading.

Miss Arbogast had been jumping for about a year and was going to jump simultaneously with the others to create a formation.

``This was to be her first time to jump in formation,″ her mother said. ``She absolutely loved it.″

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