Air show practice claims two lives

An accident during practice maneuvers has claimed the lives of two Vultures Formation Team pilots, according to the Delaware State Police (DSP).

Two trios in V-formation passed over and under without incident, DSP reported. But, following the maneuver, one of the pilots suddenly banked, clipping his neighbor.

Both pilots lost control of their small experimental planes and ditched into the Delaware Bay near Cape Henlopen on July 10.

Neither man survived the crash.

According to reports, “numerous Good Samaritan boats” responded immediately. Rescuers pulled Pennsylvania resident Jay Blum from the water near the wreckage of his 2 Rutan Long-EZ experimental craft. They rushed Blum to the pier at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal, but he was pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics with the Sussex County Emergency Medical Service (SCEMS).

Crews recovered Milton resident Ralph Morgan from the second plane two days later, on July 12.

Divers from the state police SCUBA Unit (with assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard, local fire departments and various state agencies) had initiated a search for Morgan and plane, but their efforts were hampered by strong tides and murky waters.

Eventually, using enhanced photographs of the crash scene provided by the DSP’s High Tech Crimes Unit, they located the second plane, a Van’s RV8. Tow Boat US provided recovery equipment, and crews brought plane and Morgan’s body ashore.

Bethany Beach resident Rick Hundley, an experimental pilot himself, said he’d seen the Vulture Formation Team flying around the area on previous occasions.

He said his own two-seater topped out at about 70 mph — the Long-EZ and RV8s were much more high performance, with 180- to 200-horsepower engines, capable of achieving tops speeds between 160 and 180 miles per hour.

“They’re all kit-built aircraft, but those planes look a lot more like certified aircraft,” Hundley pointed out. “They’re all-metal, aluminum-skinned aircraft, not fabric-covered.”

Pilots of home-built aircraft still obtain a Certificate of Airworthiness from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but they can bypass major manufacturers by accepting certain additional restrictions. Only “certified aircraft” can be used commercially.

Hundley said there is always risk involved with flying experimental aircraft — or any small planes, for that matter — because low-altitude flying makes traditional parachutes ineffective.

A ballistic (rocket-fired) parachute, attached to the plane itself, might have helped these two pilots — but Hundley said he didn’t know of anyone who’d ever tried to put that kind of rig on an experimental.