Reporting Bob Roberts
NAPERVILLE, Ill. (WBBM) – A Naperville Township couple survived the crash of their small plane into a fitness center Wednesday. Now, federal investigators are trying to determine why the plane failed to gain enough altitude to avoid it.
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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the crash, which occurred during the noon hour Wednesday, only a couple of blocks from the private air park subdivision in which the couple live.
The plane struck a decorative cupola on the southwest corner of the Xsport Fitness Center, at 2780 Fitness Dr., near the intersection of Illinois 59 and 75th Street, in Naperville. Fuel spilled from the plane’s tanks into a weight room and basketball courts below, but no fire occurred.
Pilot Lloyd McKee, 66, and his wife Maureen, 63, were rescued from inside of the building. Naperville Fire Department paramedics transported the couple of Edward Hospital, in Naperville, where they were said to have cuts, bruises, scrapes and fractures, but nothing life threatening, said Naperville Police Cmdr. Mike Anders. They were listed in serious condition, as of Wednesday night.
Not one of the 280 people who were inside the fitness center when the plane crashed into it was hurt, Anders said.
Fellow pilots, such as Scott Hall, were relieved upon learning that the injuries suffered by the McKees were not life threatening.
“I’m ecstatic to hear that they are alive,” said Hall, who said he is acquainted with the McKees and has been in the single-engine Piper Cherokee that crashed.
Anders said that the Piper had been aloft only seconds, en route to Pittsburgh. The airstrip is the Main Street of the Aero Estates subdivision, in which the homes lining the runways each have hangars instead of garages. The airstrip has been maintained since 1955 by the Naper Aero Club.
“He’s a former airport board president,” said Mark Baumvetz, an aviation lawyer who is the club’s current president. “He’s an extremely safety-conscious pilot and continues to be a watchdog for the field.”
The club defended itself a decade ago against lawsuits that sought to force it to curtail its operations. The land to the north of the airstrip, including the spot on which Xsport Fitness stands, was a farm until being developed in the past five years.
The estate of candy heiress Helen Voorhees Brach owned the farm at the time and battled with Naper Aero Club in both state and federal court, seeking unsuccessfully to shut down its main north-south runway, the one used by the McKees Wednesday; the couple live adjacent to the runway.
The proximity of the runway to the fitness center, and the noise from low-flying planes overhead, concern some who use the fitness center.
“If you heard that, you would cringe,” said Jeff Stewart, an area resident, who said music inside the center failed to block out the aircraft rumble.
Baumvetz said the club has monitored development near its runways carefully, and said that Xsport Fitness is not too tall a building for the airstrip’s glide path.
He said that there has never been a fatal accident during takeoff or landing operations at the club’s airstrip. It closed voluntarily Wednesday shortly after the crash until about 4:30 p.m. Baumvetz said it did so because of the news helicopters hovering above the north end of its runway.
The airport’s fuel tanks were shut down until NTSB investigators could make certain that bad fuel did not contribute to the accident. Baumvetz said he expected that to take a day or two at most.
Some curiosity seekers wondered aloud why McKee didn’t simply steer around the building. Pilots said that any attempt to do so while gaining speed and fighting for altitude would have caused it to plummet to the ground.
The two blocks immediately to the north of the airfield is a grassy area. A parking lot sits between the grassy area and the fitness center.
A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) online directory states that the plane was built in 1977 and is registered to the Airplane Holdings Co., in Wilmington, Del.
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