The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1997, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Saturday, January 4, 1997             TAG: 9701040303
DATELINE: EDENTON                           LENGTH:  117 lines


While family and colleagues of two Manteo pilots wait for autopsies and investigations to be completed, the cause of Thursday night's plane crash seems to have everyone baffled.

Wesley G. Meekins, 35, and Leon M. Swain Jr., 45, plunged into the Albemarle Sound shortly before 7 p.m. after the Cessna 208 cargo plane Meekins was flying through dense fog struck a power line scaffolding. Meekins was employed by Tarheel Aviation and was working as a contractor delivering UPS packages.

``Wes has flown that route so many times, he knew that those towers were there,'' said Tim Gaylord, Dare County airport manager.

Gaylord said that in poor visibility pilots typically choose to land at another airport where conditions are clearer. He said Meekins probably had six hours of fuel in his tank Thursday, and in the past he would not have landed.

``It makes no rhyme or reason . . . both of them were experienced pilots. I never heard of them taking a chance like that before, and it just doesn't seem to fit,'' Gaylord said.

Meekins was believed to be attempting to land at the Edenton airport.

Only one runway, Runway 19, is considered operational at the former World War II Marine air base that now serves as Edenton's airport.

Charles Shaw, a former fighter pilot and official of the Edenton Regional Airport Commission, said that the commission plans to lengthen the main 5,330-foot runway by 600 feet.

The runway runs north and south, and, depending on the wind direction, northbound aircraft have to approach over Albemarle Sound before touching down at the south end of the runway. Planes coming in from the north come in over a dense stand of trees before landing.

Investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration were delayed Friday by fog. Authorities at the scene Friday said the small, single-engine plane probably hit the right corner of a 130-foot tall tower, one of about 15 that support power lines across the sound from Edenton to Plymouth. After hitting the tower, the plane struck two live electrical lines.

Chowan County Sheriff Fred Spruill said officers were dispatched to the scene at 7:35 p.m. and had to use night-vision equipment to see the downed plane, which lay 150 yards from the bank of the sound.

Neighbors in the nearby Cape Colony subdivision reported hearing at least one loud explosion.

``The plane came over our house and it was coming in fast and low,'' said Downing A. Armstrong, who says he heard Meekins flying by just about every morning and evening. ``He must've gotten disoriented. Then there was an explosion. I figured it was a transformer.''

About 10,000 residents in Plymouth, Edenton, Columbia and Creswell lost power at 6:49 p.m., said Bryant Brooks, spokesman for North Carolina Power. All power was restored by 10:30 p.m., he said.

Brooks said there was no indication that the pilots were electrocuted, although he said it was ``possible.'' He added that the towers are not required to be lit.

Patricia Madry, administrative assistant with Chowan County Emergency Services, said three rescuers launched a 24-foot rescue vessel at 7:30 p.m. She said there was no sign of life when they arrived. Both men were still in their safety belts. Although there was a strong smell of fuel, she said there had been no fire or explosions on the plane. Madry said one wing was lopped off, and the plane's windshield was knocked out.

The men were pronounced dead at Chowan Hospital in Edenton. Their bodies were later sent to Chapel Hill, where the state medical examiner will conduct an autopsy. A report is expected to be released by Sunday.

Only the tail and part of the fuselage of the plane protruded from 5-foot-deep water where the plane was found. Neighbors and emergency personnel mingled quietly along the shoreline Friday, squinting into the bright sun, sharing stories and watching a barge maneuver toward the wreck to hoist it out of the water.

Swain's uncle, Jim Comer, was among onlookers at the scene Friday.

``He didn't want to go last night,'' Comer said. ``He told his wife he had a bad feeling.''

But Comer said Swain didn't want Meekins to fly by himself in bad weather.

Comer said his nephew, who was born in Roper, always loved to fly, even after getting shot down in Vietnam when he was in the Army.

``He'd rather fly than eat when he was hungry,'' Comer said. ``He was one of the best guys I have ever seen. The preacher said if you have to die, he'd wouldn't want to go any other way, because he had airplane petro in his veins.''

Swain is survived by his wife and four children. Swain flew ``jump seat'' frequently with Meekins when he needed a lift back from his job. He was employed by Airborne, a package delivery service.

Classmates of Meekins moved quickly on Friday to establish a memorial fund to benefit the pilot's family. Donations will be accepted at any Centura Bank branch.

``Craziest.'' That was the senior superlative that Manteo High School seniors bestowed upon Meekins in the spring of 1980. Amy Midgett Gamiel, a lifelong friend of Meekins, shared the honor.

``He was just a fun person,'' Gamiel said.

Meekins and his wife, Heidi, had two children, Meredith Joy and Owen, who often flew with his father. Meekins sometimes worked two jobs to support his family.

Rex Tillett remembers his best friend's passion for aviation. The two were born a month apart and remained friends ``from babies up,'' Tillett said. Meekins started hanging out at the airport as a teenager and learned to fly after joining the Marines.

``Everything revolved around flying an airplane,'' Tillett said. ``He died doing what he loved to do.'' MEMO: Staff writers Mason Peters and Lorraine Eaton contributed to this

report. ILLUSTRATION: Color photos by Drew C. Wilson/The Virginian-Pilot

The UPS plane that carried Wesley G. Meekins and Leon M. Swain Jr.

was found in shallow water in the Albemarle Sound Friday.

The plane crash Thursday night killed two Manteo men. Authorities

believe the plane struck an electrical tower and careened into the

water. Because the pilot was experienced and was familiar with the

route, the investigation raises many questions.

Color Map

Area Shown

[For complete copy, see microfilm]


by CNB