MERIDEN — Officials at Meriden Markham Airport believe the pilot flying the plane that crashed into the baseball field at Wilcox Technical High School Thursday intentionally landed at the field because it was empty at the time.
Constance Castillo, the airport’s manager and a pilot of 35 years, explained that when aircraft experience engine failure, they essentially turn into gliders that can be steered, similar to a car placed in neutral.
Meriden Markham is less than a mile from Wilcox Tech.
While some expressed concern about what could have happened if the plane crashed into the baseball field a couple of hours earlier when students were using it, Airport Director Wilma Petro said she believes the pilot would have picked another landing spot.
“Pilots are trained in an emergency to always find a safe place to land, so when you look at where they were, there was a big field and there was a pond and there were no people there,” she said.
Pilots usually have some control and time before a crash, according to Petro.
What the pilot didn’t see for some reason was the transmission line damaged by the plane, causing power outages throughout the city, said City Manager Tim Coon.
The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the crash, which occurred around 7 p.m. The two men in the plane, whose names have not been released, suffered minor injuries, according to state police.
Authorities said the plane was conducting “touch-and-go” maneuvers when the crash occurred. It’s not uncommon for pilots to use Meriden Markham Airport to practice takeoffs and landings.
“Basically what you do is you come in to land and you touch the wheels down and then you go right back up and take off again,” Castillo said.
When performing the maneuver at airports, pilots fly in a pre-determined flight pattern set by the FAA. The maneuver is considered part of a pilot’s training and is done by pilots of all experience levels.
“Even people who have been a pilot for 30 years will do touch-and-go’s,” Petro said.
The aircraft originated from Westchester County, New York, and is registered to Westchester Flying Club, Inc. The president and vice president of the club did not return calls for comment Friday.
“Our 75 member club is based at Westchester County Airport (HPN) and has been here since the 1960s,” the website says.
The crash at Wilcox was the third plane crash in Meriden, away from the airport, in the past two years.
Dr. Joseph Tomanelli, of Cheshire, was flying a plane with his son, Daniel, in April 2017 when they crashed into the airport fencing and onto the road, causing the plane to burst into flames. Joseph Tomanelli died in the crash and his son suffered serious injuries.
In January 2018, Philip F. Cianciolo, of Wallingford, and Beverly Weintraub, of New York, were inside a Piper PA28 plane when it crashed near the American Legion building on Hanover Road, just across Hanover Pond from Wilcox Tech. They suffered serious but non-life threatening injuries.
Petro called the three crashes “anomalies” because each happened for “completely different reasons.”
“There’s nothing about any of those incidents that we could have prevented,” Petro said.
The three crashes since 2017 are the only three crashes that have occurred in Meriden away from the airport in the last 20 to 25 years, Petro said based on conversations with longtime pilots at the airport.
“It just so happens that there’s been a run of these,” Petro said. “… It’s unfortunate they happened at all. It’s unfortunate they happened so close together, but each one was for a different reason, apparently.”
Coon said it’s too early to say whether the city will change any policies as a result of the latest crash.
Meriden Markham is a public airport and receives state and federal funding, so it doesn’t have control over which planes and pilots use the airport, unlike private airports.
“We don’t have the ability to say, ‘No touch-and-go’s,’” Petro said. “...Once you accept federal funds, your airport is always open and you have no control, any pilot can fly in and perform any maneuver that’s legal.”
The airport doesn’t have a tower on site controlling the flow of aircraft. When pilots are experiencing problems, they are able to communicate with the airport’s terminal building, which will then notify dispatchers if a plane is about to crash, which occurred during the January 2018 crash, Petro said.
The terminal building, however, isn’t open around the clock and has hours that vary by the day and season. Pilots are still able to communicate via radio with other nearby pilots when the terminal is closed to let them know if they’re about to crash.