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I-285 crash: The popular plane’s history

The radio wouldn’t work. The battery died. The landing gear refused to lock.

Tom Rushworth was flying home from vacation in the Arkansas Ozarks with his wife, Dot, in his ‘77 Piper Cherokee Lance after dropping family off in Toledo.

The day was unremarkable. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. At about 10:20 a.m. on July 12, 2004, at roughly 8,000 feet above Marion, Ind.: Complete electrical failure. The retractable wheels collapsed as they hit the asphalt.

“We literally skid down the runway on the rails,” said the 64-year-old retired business owner, of the belly landing 11 years ago. The sparks that showered the aircraft were only overshadowed by the grinding sound of metal scraping against concrete. “We ran out of runway,” Dot chimed in.

Then it was over. No one hurt. “Just like a sled,” Rushworth said.

More than a decade later, that same airplane was in the news.

Greg Byrd of Asheville, N.C., was recently at the controls of the PA-32R-300 when it fell from the sky and exploded on the eastbound lane of I-285.

The crash, even by the appalling standards of Atlanta’s commutes, reverberated in the metro area and beyond, an effect of the gravity of the tragedy.

No one survived. The 53-year-old pilot; his sons Philip, 26, and Christopher, 27; and his future daughter-in-law, Jackie Kulzer, died instantly.

The calamity set at least one online pilot forum abuzz with theories about what caused the accident.

Misfueling, some guessed.

The wrong kind of gas, commenters speculated on the forum, perhaps kerosene-based jet fuel, could have seized-up the plane’s insides. Others, elsewhere, wondered if it was loaded improperly, or if trouble took hold at the most perilous moment, takeoff.

Only a week or so out, however, it’s impossible to tell.

It’s concievable the wreckage is so badly burned that National Transportation Safety Board investigators might never determine the exact cause. Rushworth, the former pilot, similarly had no additional insights.

After his emergency landing in Indiana, he and the plane’s then-co-owner, Greg Mahler, an Indiana CPA who is a flight instructor on the side, had the Cherokee Lance meticulously repaired.

New propeller. New belly. An overhauled engine, too, just to be safe. Rushworth flew for another six years, fueled by equal parts passion and confidence.

At 40, he discovered airplanes after visiting the ‘Memphis Belle’ with his father, a former World War II captain of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, who piloted 35 missions over Germany.

And aerial mishaps, while jarring to the rest of us, and sometimes fatal, are as easy to move past for pilots as mangled pileups rubberneckers stare at on city roads.

For operators of private planes, like that Piper, packing up the flying machine is no different from loading up the car with the kids. The vehicle simply extends the distance of the journey.

It’s just: Climb. Fly straight. Land.

Plane used for charity runs

Rushworth and Mahler originally looked at the Cherokee Lance on July 14, 1999. They bought it soon after, Mahler said.

He remembers the exact date because of its remarkable proximity to the crash John F. Kennedy Jr. died in after piloting a similar Piper aircraft into the Atlantic off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.

The partners quickly concluded they owned a great plane, though. The pair used it for hundreds of charity hospital runs — usually for young children with cancer who lived in rural areas, far from major medical centers.

Since 1994, Mahler has operated dozens of airplane makes and models in his more than 5,500 hours of flight time. That’s like a full-time job for nearly three years.

Of all the machines he has flown, said Mahler, that Piper Cherokee Lance was his favorite. “It’s called the ‘SUV of the Sky.’ You can look that up.”

Like an SUV, it was roomy.

Piper Aircraft manufactured the Cherokee Lance from 1976-to-1978. The cabin reportedly is among the largest of its class. It seats six and leaves enough room for additional storage.

Funeral directors who transported bodies for the families of the departed often used the PA-32 family, according to Flying magazine. And, before electronic processing, banks, too, flew checks inside the cargo hold.

Between 2010 and 2014, the single-engine aircraft has been involved in at least 15 accidents, according to FAA data maintained by the National Institute of Computer Assisted Reporting. People died in at least six of those instances.

In May 2013, a pilot and a passenger died in nearby Bibb County after engine trouble caused a ‘76 Cherokee Lance to crash in a heavily wooded swamp and catch fire.

Regardless, Rushworth’s joy of flying never paled.

But he had to give it up in 2010 when doctors discovered a dissected aorta after he’d run a triathlon in Wisconsin for his granddaughter, Lauryn, who is currently in remission from leukemia. He felt sick throughout the entire race, but didn’t know what was wrong.

Rushworth actually flew back to Indianapolis before going to the hospital.

With Rushworth no longer able to fly because of his heart ailment, the partners decided to sell the plane. In spring 2012, a businessman in Asheville liked what he saw. Greg Byrd bought it with up-to-date inspection records and excellent logs, both former owners insisted.

Byrd flew the aircraft for more than three years before the fatal crash.

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