Killed in the crash were pilot, George D. Mitchell, 42, of Marietta; co-pilot, Olin L. Bankhead Jr., 49, of Marietta; flight engineer, Malcolm J. Davis, 49, of Marietta; flight test engineer, Troy C. Castona, 33, of Smyrna; flight engineer, Veda Ruiz, 46, of Kennesaw; research engineer, William B. Southerland, 49, of Smyrna; and flight test engineer, Alan McLeroy, 35, of Marietta.
The “High Technology Test Bed” (HTTB) was built in 1971 as an L-100 – which was the civilian version of the C-130 Hercules military transport, and later modified into the HTTB in the early 1980s. This one-of-a-kind transport, dubbed a “flying laboratory,” was owned by Cobb-based Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Co. and flown by company employees to test their own avionics and electronic systems, as well as systems built by other firms. At the time of the crash, the crew was testing a new rudder-control system.
Witnesses told the Marietta Daily Journal that the plane got airborne around 1:30 p.m., then it appeared to veer to the left to avoid crashing onto the flight line where C-130s, F-15 jet fighters and other aircraft were parked on the tarmac. After the turn, the plane reportedly nose-dived to the ground just barely clearing a stand of pine trees and a short radar tower before crashing onto an access road a quarter-mile from the runway and about 150 yards from a vacant recreation area.
The plane came to a stop 25 feet from the Navy medical clinic operated by Naval Air Station-Atlanta, which was set ablaze by the crash. The plane also clipped an ambulance that was in a parking lot. The clinic was quickly doused with water and foam by firefighters to contain the flames. All 50 people inside escaped unhurt.
The force of the impact ripped the wings free from the plane. The front third of the fuselage was twisted, while the rear two-thirds remained relatively in tact.
Amateur video shot by someone at Dobbins and shown to the newspaper revealed bright orange flames and thick black smoke that quickly consumed the plane. Afterwards the entire plane was charred so badly that its markings could barely be seen. The black plume of smoke was reported as being visible for up to 15 miles away.
The crash also happened right after the retirement luncheon for Dobbins Fire Chief Jimmy Gilbert. Gilbert, who was being honored by fellow firefighters on his last day with the department. Gilbert had just returned to work when the warning bells sounded the plane crash. Within 90 seconds, his first fire unit was at the scene and was later assisted by units from Cobb County and Smyrna fire departments.
The crash was the third time in less than five years that a plane based at Dobbins Air Reserve Base had been involved in a fatal crash.
In November 1989, an A-7E Corsair Navy jet from Naval Air Station-Atlanta crashed into a Smyrna apartment complex while on approach to the runway at Dobbins, killing two people. The Corsair was on a routine training mission when the pilot, who survived the crash, mistakenly shut off fuel to the single-engine jet and could not reignite the engine.
In December 1988, a Dobbins-based Georgia Army National Guard reconnaissance plane narrowly missed several homes before crashing into a heavily wooded area of Cherokee County. The pilot of the Grumman OV-1D, dubbed “The Widowmaker” by aviators who flew the now-grounded twin-engine turboprop aircraft, died in the crash.
Damon Poirier is the Newsroom Administrator for the Marietta Daily Journal.
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