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Questions still surround fatal plane collision

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2000


BRADENTON -- When the two men pulled out into the roadway, they were directly in the path of a vehicle coming at them at 80 mph.

In a car, they would have had little chance of getting out of the way. In a Cessna aircraft, they had no chance at all. Another plane was speeding down the runway for takeoff.

The collision Thursday at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport killed all four people aboard the two small planes, which were engulfed in flames.

The big question -- how did it happen? -- remained unanswered Friday, and it may stay a mystery for some time. Investigators are reviewing what the control tower told each pilot, trying to learn whether there was pilot or controller error.

Each plane, a two-seat Cessna 152 and a four-seat Cessna 172, was carrying a flight instructor and a student pilot. Who was piloting each plane remains under investigation.

Aboard the four-seater were Julius Traubman, 81, president of the Sarasota Flying Club, and student pilot David Mouckley, 75, of Longboat Key.

Aboard the two-seater were Lori Bahrenburg, 26, a Sarasota flight instructor, and student Charles Heffner Sr., 80, of Bradenton.

The fiery crash happened on the larger of the airport's two runways. The smaller plane was about 1,200 feet down the 7,000-foot runway, nearly at takeoff speed, when the larger plane suddenly entered the runway, said Jeff Kennedy, lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB initially gave this account Thursday: A controller cleared the smaller plane for takeoff. At the same time, the larger plane requested permission to position the aircraft and hold on the same runway, a normal procedure before taking off. Controllers granted the request.

But Kennedy, the lead NTSB investigator, said Friday they weren't sure yet which plane had been cleared to do what.

An NTSB air traffic control expert was flown in from Washington, D.C., to review the recorded exchanges between controllers and pilots.

Kennedy said it would take five to six months to complete his investigation and another three to four months before the NTSB issues a probable-cause report.

On Friday, four families were planning funerals.

Heffner, the student pilot aboard the Cessna 152, was chasing a lifelong dream. He had wanted to be a pilot in World War II but failed flight school, his family said. At age 80, he was close to obtaining his pilot's license.

In the other plane was Traubman, an Air Force retiree and an experienced flight instructor for Dolphin Aviation, based at the airport. His wife, Hannele, 69, said he left his Sarasota home about 8 a.m. Thursday to go flying.

"We said goodbye," she said.

-Times staff writer Jean Heller contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press.

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