Kit-built plane crashes; pilot killed

Rescue workers work in the marsh along the Stono River Thursday, after an ultralight airplane crashed killing one person just a short distance from the Johns Island Executive Airport.

Johns Island -- A kit-built, ultralight plane crashed into the marsh along the Stono River on Thursday, killing the pilot.

John A. Ratcliffe, 70, of Johns Island, died at the scene of head and chest injuries, Charleston County Chief Deputy Coroner Judy Koelpin said.

Ratcliffe was the only person aboard the plane. The crash occurred shortly before 11 a.m. as the plane was flying near a runway at the Executive Airport, parallel to the river.

The wreckage was deep enough into the marsh that two airboats had to be used to bring rescue crews to the site of the crash.

Charleston city and county rescue teams, along with the Charleston County Marine Unit and several fire departments, responded to the crash. The airport was closed while recovery efforts were made; it was reopened Thursday evening.

The National Transportation Safety Board will determine how to get the plane out of the marsh.

According to Kathleen Bergen, spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, the plane was registered to Ratcliffe. It was a fixed-wing, single-engine Kolb Mark III Xtra, an amateur-built plane. According to FAA records, the plane was deemed safe to fly on Nov. 6.

Ratcliffe's pilot's certificate was issued June 30, 2004. He had a third-class medical certificate, which is for student, recreational and private pilots.

The crash came less than a month after a pilot with engine trouble and a windshield covered by oil ditched a kit-built plane on the beach at Hilton Head Island, killing a jogger and spurring a new round of concerns about the safety of the planes.

Ultralights are the smallest of the kit-built planes. The Kolb is a low-speed two-seater with a small cockpit, a large propeller mounted behind the cockpit and a fuselage no bigger than a pipe running back to the tail.

Kit-built planes have been involved in more than 1,220 accidents and more than 430 fatalities since 2005, according to FAA data. More than 30,000 planes assembled by amateurs rather than airplane manufacturers are currently licensed by the FAA.

Amateur-built planes must be certified by FAA inspectors or by FAA designees before being flown, an FAA spokeswoman said. The inspectors review the finished plane and documentation of the construction process, the spokeswoman said.

An FAA advisory cautions that ultralight planes are susceptible to winds as light as 15 mph, and that maintaining airspeed is "the single most important concern."

"In general they have a high, high accident rate," said Mary Schiavo, an aviation attorney with Motley Rice in Mount Pleasant and a former Transportation Department inspector general.

"The planes aren't very sturdy. You don't have to have a lot of qualifications to fly them, and the FAA doesn't pay close attention to them. All those factors add up to pretty high (numbers of) accidents."

The aircraft are prone to stall, there's no backup system in place, and at low altitudes the pilot doesn't have much time to recover, she said.

Allyson Bird, Edward C. Fennell, David W. MacDougall and The Hilton Head Island Packet contributed to this story. Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or bpetersen@postandcourier.com.