UPDATE: Pilot prepped for forced landing in fatal South Portland plane crash

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The pilot of a small plane that crashed on Saturday, June 17, on Western Avenue had prepared for an emergency landing, a federal investigator said on Tuesday.

But why the pilot deactivated the emergency fuel supply and turned off the electronics remains unknown, said Butch Wilson, the National Transportation Safety Board investigator.

Wilson said investigators hope to uncover those answers when they disassemble the plane’s engine on Wednesday. But answers may be difficult to find because of the engine’s condition.

“The engine is banged up pretty good,” he said. “It’s possible the damage may cover up part of what we want to know.”

The YAK-52, a non-commercial, two-seat plane called “Lizzy-Lou,” crashed at around 3:30 p.m. shortly after taking off from the Portland International Jetport, killing the pilot and his passenger.

The victims were identified by the state medical examiner’s office as 42-year-old Mark Haskell of Brunswick, the pilot, and 66-year-old Portland resident Thomas Casagrande, who was a passenger.

The YAK-52, one of only 300 in the United States, is a 1970s-era acrobatic plane imported from Russia. It is made out of an aluminum, but is heavier than a traditional small plane and the engine is more complex. 

A specialist has been assisting in the investigation, Wilson said.  

The plane’s annual inspection last occurred in June, but officials are still trying to find documents that would indicate who inspected it and where the inspection took place.

Wilson said an examination of the fuselage revealed all of the flight controls were operational when the plane went down, but it was not going fast enough to glide to a safe landing.

“(Haskell) had no controllability issues with the aircraft,” he said.

An air traffic controller noticed the plane wobbling after it took off, Wilson said, and asked Haskell if he needed to return to the airport. Haskell replied that he did. Less than a minute later, the plane banked sharply to the left and dove 300 feet to the ground.

Wilson said pilots typically kill the fuel supply and electronics to avoid sparking a ground fire during a forced landing. Emergency responders indicated that about 20 gallons of fueled spilled at the crash site, he said.

Wilson said the propeller was not turning when the plane crashed.

“Once you turn the fuel off, the engine is going to quit,” he said. “Right now, we don’t know which one came first.”

Jetport Director Paul Bradbury said Haskell, a Jetport employee, was having his pilot’s license re-certified. Casagrande, a retired military test pilot and certified flight instructor, was conducting the biennial re-certification. 

“The plane would not have taken off if it hadn’t passed the pre-flight check,” Bradbury said.

Bradbury said Haskell had just completed his second touch-and-go before the plane crashed near the intersection of Western Avenue, Maine Mall Road and Jetport Plaza Road.

Wilson said a preliminary report should be released by the end of this week. But the full investigation, which includes a determination of cause and piecing together the airplane in a hanger, will take anywhere from six months to a year.

Haskell was employed as an air traffic controller in Portland, according to a statement issued by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association posted on the Jetport’s website. He had worked at the airport for 19 years and also served as the NATCA’s facility representative from 2008-2009.

“This was a very sad day for the Jetport family,” Bradbury said. “He was a very passionate guy about aviation.”

Current NATCA facility representative Shaun Patten said he knew Haskell for three years. Since there are only 20 air traffic controllers working in Portland, all of them feel a tremendous sense of loss, he said.

“He was just the nicest guy,” Patten said in a written statement. “His smile greeted you every time you saw him. Not only was he a very dedicated and talented controller – very good at his job – he took new controllers under his wing and helped them out. Mark also had a great sense of humor. No matter how busy it got, he always had his sense of humor going and that set such an example for all of us.”

Haskell had flown his YAK-52 at airshows in Brunswick and Portland.

“Mark took several controllers up in his plane. He always got people involved and loved to teach the new guys about it,” Patten said. “Mark was very active in putting together air shows and did all of the Brunswick and Portland shows in his plane. His plane was unique and very easy to find at the airport.”

A website dedicated to the aircraft said it was bought from the Romanian Air Force in 2001. It was named “Lizzy-Lou” after Haskell’s daughter, Elizabeth Louise, who was born the same day the sales contract was signed. 

Bradbury said this was the second fatal crash at the Jetport in recent memory. About 10 years ago, a small plane crashed shortly after take-off, but never cleared the Jetport property. All four people aboard were killed.

South Portland Police Chief Edward Googins said emergency crews were on the scene within minutes of Saturday’s crash.

Although the crash site was a heavily travelled, five-lane stretch of road in the city’s busy commercial and industrial district, Googins said there no other injuries or property damage.

“How this happened without others being involved is just really a miracle,” Googins said.

Western Avenue from Foden Road to Maine Mall Road was closed while investigators surveyed the damage. It was reopened shortly after noon on Sunday, Googins said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

This story was last updated on Wednesday, July 21.

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Police and firefighters from Portland and South Portland secure the scene around a small plane that crashed on Western Avenue in South Portland on Saturday, July 17, after takeoff from the Portland International Jetport. The pilot, Mark Haskell, 42, and his passenger, 66-year-old Thomas Casagrande, were killed.