A longtime pilot who flew helicopters for the Marines and commercial planes for American Airlines died Monday after his new plane – a small, blue and yellow homebuilt aircraft he proudly showed his neighbors just months earlier – crashed into a lake near his Wellington home.
It happened just before 1 p.m. near the end of the runway at the private Wellington Aero Club, where the pilot lived. He was in the plane alone when he crashed and had been practicing landings, what pilots call "touch and gos," FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue authorities had not released the man's name late into the day Monday, but neighbors and friends identified him as Leonard "Link" McGarity, a 58-year-old, well-liked father of two girls. His death stunned the tight-knit community of aviators at Aero Club, which is built around a private, paved runway. They described him as a seasoned pro.
"If this happened to him, it's something wrong with the plane, not him," said friend and neighbor Ken Kopp. "He knew what he was doing."
Angie Hendrix, who was sitting on a friend's patio in a nearby neighborhood at the time of the crash, said she heard a sputtering and then, about three seconds later, a muffled boom. The 42-year-old Wellington woman said she quickly realized what it was.
"I said, 'I really think I just heard a plane crash,'" Hendrix said.
Within minutes, ambulances came rushing to the scene in the 2900 block of Greenbriar Boulevard and a helicopter flew overhead. Hendrix said her friend went outside and saw the plane partially-submerged in the water, confirming her suspicions.
"It just gave us chills," she said. "And we prayed for the family."
The plane was a Sonex homebuilt sport aircraft, which falls into the experimental category, Bergen said. A two-seat plane, the Sonex has a maximum weight of about 1,100 pounds and cruises at about 135 miles per hour. It can be built with a tail wheel or a nose wheel.
Mike January, president and founder of the Florida Sonex Association, based in Dunnellon, Fla., said the plane is easy to fly and, since being introduced in the mid-1990s, has been involved in relatively few fatal accidents.
"It probably has one of the best safety records of any of the kit manufacturers out there," he said. "That's why I fly one."
McGarity's Sonex was built in 2007 and was in the association's database, January said. Kopp said he went over to his friend's house to check it out about three months ago. Since then, McGarity had been enjoying flying the "zippy little plane," Kopp said.
He said the crash was a tragedy that has hit the Aero Club community hard. McGarity was a well-liked member of it, often stopping by neighbor's homes to chat or help them work on their planes, Kopp said
"He was just a happy guy, always willing to lend a hand," Kopp said. "He was a great dad and a super great guy."
Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report
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