A 66-year-old stunt pilot was seriously injured Saturday afternoon when his single-engine plane crashed while doing barrel rolls and other low-altitude maneuvers at an air show at Modesto Airport in front of a large crowd, according to witnesses and authorities.
Rob Harrison, also known by his performance name, "The Tumbling Bear," was taken by helicopter to Memorial Medical Center, where he was listed in serious condition Saturday, Modesto Fire Battalion Chief Hugo Patino said.
Harrison's yellow stunt plane crashed toward the end of the runway in a field west of Tenaya Drive and Daly Avenue.
It was the third plane to perform before hundreds who gathered for the 14th annual Modesto Airport Appreciation Day. The weather was sunny and clear with no wind at the time of the crash.
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Harrison's single-seat, open-cockpit plane crashed about 1 p.m. on the stretch of dry grass, far from the spectators who were watching the show inside the airport's boundary.
Other spectators, who didn't pay admission, watched from outside the airport's fenced boundary along Tenaya and South Conejo Avenue.
Michael Coughlin, 55, of Hawaii was one of them. He was visiting friends in Modesto and decided to watch the aerobatic performances when the unexpected happened.
"He just slammed right into the ground," Coughlin said. "He partially pulled himself out of the wreck and waved his hand high like he was saying, 'Here I am. Come and get me.' "
Coughlin said he was using binoculars to spot Harrison's plane when the crash occurred.
"His plane just broke apart," Coughlin said. "It just bumped on the ground before it stopped."
Pilot alert after crash
Jerry Waymire, coordinator of the event the past six years, was one of the first at the crash. He said Harrison was alert and talking moments after the crash.
"The accident looked horrific, but the first words out of his mouth were, 'I'm OK, I'm OK,' " Waymire said.
Waymire is a member of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Aero Squadron, a group of volunteer pilots who organize the air show. Waymire's wife was at the hospital with Harrison's wife, Susan Newman-Harrison.
He said he was joining the wives later at the hospital to get updates on Harrison's condition.
"They're still doing X-rays on him, and he broke his two ankles," Waymire said Saturday afternoon. "It looks like he's going to be OK."
Investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration inspected the crash soon after the plane went down. Waymire said it was too early to tell what caused the crash, and he did not want to speculate.
Patino said firefighters, on standby at the show, responded immediately.
Harrison's last maneuver was to come in low to the ground east to west and perform a set of barrel rolls before coming in for a landing, Patino said.
Witnesses told authorities it appeared that Harrison's plane was too low, and a wing might have clipped the runway, causing the plane to careen out of control onto the airfield.
Patino said a small fire was sparked at the crash site, but firefighters from Modesto Fire Station 8 at the airport arrived and suppressed the flames using foam.
Harrison was pulled from the wreckage and handed off to ambulance personnel for treatment. Patino said firefighters and paramedics stabilized Harrison and readied him for his helicopter ride to the hospital within 21 minutes.
Patino said the wreckage will be loaded on a trailer and moved to another location at the airport in preparation for the investigation by the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board. Modesto firefighters left the crash site by 2:30 p.m.
Firefighters drove Harrison's wife from the air show to the hospital.
Harrison's wife, who is also a pilot, works as her husband's promoter, hangar assistant and flight line crew leader, according to information distributed to the media. She describes his performance to the air show audiences on the public address system while Harrison flies his plane.
Harrison's biography on the Rob Harrison Airshows Web site says he's been flying since age 6 and had given more than 300 performances as of 2007. He lives in Claremont in Southern California.
According to Harrison's Web site, the plane was a Zlin 50 LX made in the Czech Republic in 1996. It had a top speed of about 250 mph.
"We were watching all these wonderful maneuvers," said Shirley Gray of Waterford, who was sitting in her pickup watching the show. "(The pilot) had just come out of a loop but he didn't pull up. He just lost it. The plane just came down flat."
Carlos Valentine, 68, of Clovis watched the crash from Tenaya Drive.
"There was a huge cloud of dust when it crashed," Valentine said. "Then we saw a wisp of smoke. We thought it might go up in flames."
Valentine was visiting his son's family in Atwater, so they drove to Modesto to watch the show. He said several other spectators were shocked to see the plane go down.
"Everybody here was yelling, 'Get him out! Get him out!' " Valentine said.
Samuel Esparza, 30, of Modesto and his family had just arrived to watch the show from Tenaya Drive.
"I would have never thought it was going to crash," Esparza said in Spanish. "It was making spins, then it hit the ground and the wing just flew off."
After Harrison was taken to the hospital, the air show continued, but there were no more aerobatic performances.
Final performance canceled
During an air show, the FAA closes the airspace above an airport so aerobatic pilots can perform without running into aircraft landing or departing from the airport, Waymire said.
The time limit for the airspace closure had expired shortly before 2:30 p.m., so the fourth and final aerobatic performance was canceled, Waymire said.
The airport stayed open until 4 p.m. as scheduled. Spectators continued taking rides on planes and helicopters, along with admiring the vintage planes parked along the runway. Waymire said about 3,000 spectators attended the air show Saturday, about 1,000 more than last year.
Lee Ogle, 61, said he has attended several air shows and he is familiar with aerial maneuvers. He was watching Saturday's from inside the airport.
Ogle said he is a former aircraft inspector and served in the Air Force from 1966 to 1970. While he never obtained his pilot's license, Ogle said he flew B-52 bombers out of Guam, along with missions during the Vietnam War.
He said it was unusual to see Harrison conduct barrel rolls with his stunt plane at such a low altitude. Ogle said you can lose air speed while doing the rolls, which cause the plane to lose air lift.
"I don't know why he would be doing those maneuvers at that altitude," said Ogle, of Sonora. "He was 20 feet above the ground. He was what we call right on the deck. ..."
But Ogle made it clear that there could be a lot of reasons for the crash.
"If you get a downdraft wind, that can put you right into the ground," Ogle said. "I'm just really pleased he was able to survive this crash."
Bee staff writer Donna Birch contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.