JEDBURG -- From all indications, pilot Peter Radding was meticulous about his plane.

When it came to measuring weight, he'd always fly at least 100 pounds below the maximum allowed. If the weather was iffy, he took that into consideration as well.

And that's why friends think some strange event must have caused the fatal crash that downed Radding's twin-engine 1976 Piper PA-23 just seconds after leaving the runway.

"Pete was extremely safety conscious," said Lucy Carter, whose husband, Dallas Carter, 68, of Laurel, Del., was among the four men killed just before dawn Wednesday at the Dorchester County Airport. "He would not fly if there were even a question."

While investigators today are scheduled to move the plane's charred wreckage to Atlanta for examination, a picture of Radding's role as a benefactor and contributor to the Charleston community is emerging. Friends said he was a pilot who routinely flew children on mercy missions to hospitals far away, and also worked to fight cancer.

Charleston surgeon Paul Baron said Radding was a leading figure behind creating the Charleston Breast Center, which he helped launch in 2005, giving hours of his time and knowledge.

"Pete was determined to be behind the scenes," Baron said. "Hundreds of women in the Lowcountry are alive today because of Pete Radding's extraordinary gift."

Also killed in the crash were passengers James Randolph Hargenrader, 55, of Summerville, and Edwin Steeble, also of Summerville, whose age has not yet been verified by the Dorchester County Coroner's Office.

Meanwhile, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said it could be a week before a preliminary report on the crash at the county-owned airport is released.

A working theory is that the plane pulled to the left after takeoff, climbing to a height of at least 90 feet before banking into the thick ring of trees surrounding the airport. The men were on their way to a ham radio contest in the Bahamas, an event they attended twice a year, flying out of Summerville.

While the plane was filled with their traveling radio gear, officials don't have reason to think the equipment was too heavy for the plane.

At the scene Thursday, NTSB investigator Shawn D. Etcher corrected two earlier reports, saying the plane had landed upright and that the propeller thought to be missing actually still was with the plane. He did say two of the aircraft's six interior seats had been removed.

While a preliminary report could be ready in a week or so, Etcher said it could take more than a year to pinpoint the cause of the crash. One hope is that data in the plane's global positioning system could be recovered, though he cautioned that the severity of the fire might make that impossible.

Representatives of the plane manufacturer were on the scene to identify specific parts of the plane and their condition.

The plane took off from the airport's Runway 24 at 6:28 a.m., heading south. It quickly veered off course and crashed into a low-lying, thickly wooded area adjacent to the airfield, some 50 yards off the runway. The temperature was about 40 degrees Wednesday morning, officials said, and it was clear and calm.

Lucy Carter said a love of radio-operating is what drew the four men together and that Radding and his family had lived near them in Delaware before moving to South Carolina. Carter's husband, Dallas, was so enamored with ham radios, she said, that he helped set up a link for school students to talk with the astronauts in space.

Radding, 69, had retired from the Corning glass and ceramics company where he was a pioneer in fiber optics. But he never really retired, Baron said, and was always looking to help where he could. "He could function on four hours of sleep a night," Baron said.

Tim Dugan, who worked with Radding in a successful business venture, said his friend and mentor will be missed by a large section of the Charleston region. He also said that whatever mishap occurred in the air, Radding had a reputation for trying to head off a problem if he knew it was there.

"He would check everything imaginable," Dugan said. "Nothing would miss his eye."

Reach Schuyler Kropf at skropf@postandcourier.com or 937-5551.