Aurora pilot killed on homemade plane's maiden voyage
An Aurora man who twice before walked away from crashes in small experimental aircraft was killed Sunday morning when the plane he was flying went down in a cornfield shortly after takeoff from Aurora Municipal Airport.
John Morrison, 73, was the pilot and sole passenger of the plane, which crashed in head-high corn on the south side of Granart Road, west of Camp Dean Road in Big Rock Township, according to the Kane County sheriff's office. Authorities responded to the site at about 7:45 a.m. Sunday.
"He built it himself. This was the first flight for that plane," Kane County Sheriff's Lt. Patrick Gengler said. "He was just going up to give it its maiden voyage."
Authorities described Morrison as an experienced pilot with a long history of flying homemade aircraft. Federal Aviation Administration records indicate Morrison had just registered the plane, called a Morrison E-Racer, on May 31.
Morrison's family will not be making any statements or releasing photographs, according to a statement released through the Kane County sheriff's office.
"They were pretty shaken up," Gengler said. "It's not something you expect. It sounds like he was trying to enjoy retirement."
Morrison experienced some sort of malfunction not far from the airport and radioed the control tower to request permission to turn back and land, said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro.
He was able to keep the plane airborne long enough to avoid slamming into a number of homes in his path, but clipped power lines less than 2 miles from the airport and crashed, Gengler said.
ComEd crews worked on the scene Sunday to restore power cut off by the crash.
According to National Transportation Safety Board documents, Morrison survived two previous crashes in "amateur-built" E-Racer aircraft while flying out of the Aurora airport.
"It was something that he has done pretty much his whole life," Gengler said. "It was something that he loved a lot."
On June 21, 2008, records show, Morrison had taken off from the airfield for a flight to Urbana and was about 1,300 feet above ground when engine speed began decreasing. Shortly afterward, reports state, the engine lost power completely and the plane's cockpit began filling with smoke.
"A few seconds later, he noticed that a fire had started in the cockpit near the firewall," according to the NTSB report.
Morrison headed back to Aurora for an emergency landing, but because smoke in the cockpit limited his visibility, he was not able to line up with the runway correctly. After some last-ditch maneuvers, the plane made a hard landing and was consumed by fire, but not before Morrison escaped without injury, according to the NTSB.
The agency ultimately blamed the fire and crash on an undetermined failure in the plane's high-pressure fuel system.
On Sept. 12, 2000, federal documents show, Morrison was taking an E-Racer on a test flight out of Aurora when the airplane lost power while making a final approach. The engine failure forced Morrison to make an emergency landing in a Sugar Grove bean field about a half-mile from the airport.
The NTSB blamed the crash on "the owner/builder's inadequate modification to the engine air intake system and the inadvertent engine shutdown."
Morrison was the owner of Morrison Body and Paint, an auto body shop.
"The family has been around Aurora for a long time. He was a really well-known guy," Gengler said.
FAA officials said the homemade plane had been registered and inspected before taking flight. Molinaro said experimental aircraft builders need to go through a course to become certified before constructing a plane.
"Home-builts are really done by experts," he said. "They build them, they are then certified and they are inspected."
The investigation into what caused the crash is being handled by the NTSB.
Staff writer Charles Keeshan contributed to this story.