Aviators and spectators attending an aircraft convention watched in horror as a light aircraft crashed and caught alight minutes after taking off from Margate Airport on Sunday.
The pilot and his woman passenger, who are believed to be from Cato Ridge, had taken off in a Rally two-seater plane just before 11am when they had difficulties and crashed.
The woman was confirmed dead at the scene and the pilot sustained critical injuries including severe burns and was taken to St Augustine’s Hospital in Durban for treatment.
Their identities were not released to the media on Sunday.
Margate Airport manager Graham Berriman said the two had come to Margate for the annual Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) convention.
“They were returning to Cato Ridge when the crash happened. While investigations will still have to be done, it is believed that while the pilot was taking off, the plane’s engine cut off. He did not have any room to come down because he ran out of runway. He tried to land the plane, but it came down and went through a perimeter fence. It crashed down a steep embankment and then burst into flames.”
Berriman said the crash happened about 900m away from the airport.
“We saw the smoke and flames and then realised that something horrible had happened.”
According to its website, the Experimental Aircraft Association is an international non-profit organisation dedicated to the advancement of aviation education, home-built aircraft, and sport aviation.
The convention began on April 27.
Berriman said he was unsure if the plane had been home-built as Rally planes were usually bought “built up”.
He said the woman’s death was the first fatality in about 12 years at the airport. “Taking off is the most dangerous part of flying and this incident is a shock to all of us. But after it happened, several planes took off because with flying, like driving, even after an accident occurs you have got to continue. People in this industry understand the dangers.”
Civil Aviation Authority spokeswoman Phindiwe Gwebu said the pilot had sent out a mayday distress call shortly before the plane crashed.
“Investigators will be on the scene as soon as possible to determine the cause of the crash.”
Netcare911 spokesman Chris Botha said paramedics had declared the woman dead at the scene.
“The pilot was in a critical condition and medics worked fervently to stabilise him on scene. The patient was initially transported to the Netcare Margate Hospital for further stabilisation, but later had to be driven to St Augustine’s Hospital in Durban for specialised care.”
Users of aviation website www.avcom.co.za, including those who were at the airfield on Sunday, posted comments on the website.
One post read: “This is very sad. We pray for the lost life and complete recovery from injury. Emergency services were quick, we sat on the balcony when the tragedy unfolded. Condolences to the family.”
Another post said: “Condolences to all involved in this tragic accident of a fellow aviator and passenger. A very sad end to a very memorable get-together of EAA members.”
Members on the website, who knew the couple, declined to comment further, saying they were not sure if the next of kin had been informed.
EAA president Craig Ralphs declined to comment on the incident on Sunday.
Police spokesman Captain Thulani Zwane said a case of culpable homicide was being investigated. - The Mercury