Friends: Pilot who died was 'good guy'

Members of a local aircraft association said they will miss John A. Ratcliffe, the Johns Island man who died Thursday when his kit-built plane crashed into the marsh along the Stono River.

"We kind of feel like our members are part of us," said Glen Phelps, president of Chapter 477 of the Experimental Aircraft Association. "He was a fun guy. A good guy."

Ratcliffe had been a member of the group for a long time and was a careful and conscientious pilot, Phelps said.

"We know very little about what happened (in the crash)," Phelps said. The Federal Aviation Authority and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the accident, and fellow pilots may benefit from whatever is learned in the investigation, he said.

Ratcliffe, 70, was flying his fixed-wing, single-engine Kolb Mark III Xtra shortly before 11 a.m. when it crashed into the marsh near a runway at Charleston Executive Airport. He died at the scene.

The plane Ratcliffe was flying was not an ultralight, as initially reported, but a light sport aircraft, according to fellow aircraft enthusiasts. The aircraft was built from a kit, but it was heavier and faster than an ultralight, which means it had to meet more stringent certification requirements, Phelps said.

"In terms of the Kolb, there are lots and lots of those aircraft flying and flying safely," Phelps said. "Everything in this appears John was obeying the rules."

Fellow chapter member Kevin Thorp said he met Ratcliffe a number of times. "He was a very friendly guy," Thorp said, "an all-around nice guy."

"The frustrating thing is when someone dies in a car crash, everyone says it's sad, but when someone dies in an airplane, everyone gets upset and thinks there should be stronger regulations," Thorp said.

Phelps also contrasted the level of public concern about automobile fatalities and aircraft fatalities. "If you drive an automobile and have a wreck, there won't be much of an investigation," Phelps said.

"But every time there's an aircraft incident, we spend thousands of taxpayer dollars to find out what happened."

Phelps also said he wishes requirements for cars and drivers were as stringent as requirements for planes and pilots. Pilots of experimental aircraft have to meet FAA certification standards and are required to take recurring tests, he said. The aircraft are also certified and subject to regular inspection.

"If they put the same restrictions on automobiles, there would be a lot of people walking," he said.