What was supposed to be a quiet day trip from Pleasanton to Columbia turned into a nightmare for a woman taking her first airplane ride.
Details about a fire that engulfed the plane were scarce Saturday afternoon, but a day later witnesses described three emergency landings because of smoke.
Fire officials reported that pilot William Supan, 57, of Pleasanton made the landings from 2:47 to 5:49 p.m. at Modesto Airport. During the third, his passenger, Jinhua Lin, 43, bailed out of a smoking cockpit while the plane was bouncing down the runway.
Supan ran to her aid after stopping the plane 100 yards or so away and 30 to 40 feet beyond the end of the runway. Witnesses said that when Supan reached Lin, the plane "torched."
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These are among the details learned a day after Supan was treated for smoke inhalation and released from a hospital Saturday evening. On Sunday, a nurse reported Lin was in stable condition with a broken leg and road rash.
Anthony McFarlane Jr. and Jason Tilford witnessed the accident from Sky Trek Aviation, where they work as linemen. Both had visited with Supan as he made repairs two hangars away.
"When he came down the first time," Tilford recalled, "(Supan) said it was just smoking a little bit out of the cowling."
That's the part of a plane between the engine cover and the windshield.
Supan told them it was exhaust smoke and he just needed a new clamp.
McFarlane said Supan went to Wal-Mart to buy one.
The second time Supan went up, smoke was pouring from the cowling again and he immediately landed.
"He found the (exhaust) hose had been almost cut in half. He didn't know how, but he had some more hose and replaced it," said McFarlane.
Supan could not be reached for comment.
Modesto fire officials said their trucks were called each time Supan landed. After the second time, firefighters urged him to have a mechanic check the plane before attempting to fly it again.
It was Supan's final liftoff an hour later at about 5:45 p.m. that almost ended in tragedy.
Tilford said he was talking to two pilots when Supan came in "really quick. His wings were wobbling and he wasn't in very good control of altitude. I thought it was a cockpit fire.
"The plane came screaming over (our) building and bounced really hard on all three landing gears."
McFarlane was fueling a medical helicopter when he saw Supan was in trouble. "He came down really fast and smoke was trailing the side of his plane. It hit the deck really hard, and then it was like a rock skipping over a pond. I counted nine times (it bounced)."
Neither McFarlane nor Tilford saw Lin jump from the plane.
"We drove down to see if we could help. He had smoke all over his face and she had bruises and cuts from her legs to her head," said McFarlane.
Tilford said Supan told them that the last time he took off there was a different problem with the aircraft.
"He said there was a puff of smoke in the cockpit and tremendous heat coming from under the floorboards. He said Lin was really nervous because it was her first flight and jumped (from the plane) because of the heat on her feet."
Firefighters reached Lin almost the same time as Supan. While a paramedic attended to their injuries, the fire crew battled the blaze in the plane. The flames ignited a couple of brush fires at the west end of the runway. The fire units withdrew at 7:30 p.m.
On Sunday, a federal aviation official inspected the wreckage. No determination on the cause of the fire was made public. The engine was intact but smoke and scoring showed up on the left side of the fuselage. Most of the 1959 Piper TriPacer's fabric skin and all of its interior were burned away.
Acting airport manager Bill Latham was thanking his lucky stars that a much worse outcome had been averted. Beckoning to the homes west of the airport, he said, "When you think of what might have been, we were all very lucky."
Bee staff writer Roger Hoskins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2311.