Pilot Killed When Small Plane Crashes Into Home Near Midway

Updated 11/18/14 – 6:33 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — The pilot of a small cargo plane was killed when the plane crashed into a home a few blocks away from Midway International Airport early Tuesday morning.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the pilot reported engine problems shortly after taking off from Midway, and was trying to get back to the airport, but never made it. The plane nose-dived into the front of a two-story home in the 6500 block of South Knox Avenue, around 2:45 a.m., and ended up partially in the living room, and partially outside on the front lawn, its tail still up in the air.

The plane initially was headed for Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling, but just before takeoff, the pilot changed his flight plan to go to Ohio State University Airport in Columbus.

The Fire Department said the pilot of the plane — an Aero Commander 500 turboprop — was the only person in the plane at the time, and was killed in the crash. Crews cut the wreckage into sections, loaded it onto a trailer and hauled it to DuPage Airport for examination.

A friend of the pilot identified him as Eric Quentin Howlett, 47, from Ohio. The medical examiner’s office has not confirmed the pilot’s ID.

WBBM’s Steve Miller spoke with a friend of Howlett, who says he had changed careers several years ago to follow his dream of becoming a professional pilot.

Eric Howlett used to work in IT, his friend and co-worker John Keller tells WBBM, but Howlett wanted to follow his dream to be a professional pilot.

Keller is charter manager of Capital City Jet Center in Columbus, Ohio, where Eric Howlett was a flight instructor.

Keller says Howlett had just gotten the job about a month ago with the Kansas City-based aviation cargo company. He was flying one of that company’s planes when he went down Tuesday morning near Midway.

“He had been working toward getting this position for awhile. That was his focus here in Columbus,” Keller says, “building his time as a flight instructor and flying with us in the charter department.”

“He was no-nonsense. He was a pilot,” says Keller.

The elderly couple who lives in the home was not injured, according to their son, Rick Rolinskas.

“They’re okay. She’s a little confused right now,” he said. “All the neighbors have been real nice to us. We’re just trying to get all the valuables out, and clothes, and get organized, and see where we’ve got to go from here.”

Rolinskas said his parents, Roberta and Ray, have lived in the home for 55 years. It’s where he grew up.

“Sad to say, she always wanted to remodel the house,” “It’s not the way to do it. I just feel so bad for the pilot, and the family. It’s a terrible thing.”

They were sleeping inside their bedroom, which missed getting hit by the plane by less than a foot.

Fire Department Special Operations Chief Michael Fox said the couple was “very lucky” to escape unharmed, as the plane ended up only about eight inches from the bedroom where they were sleeping.

“They were in the bedroom next to the living room, and the living room’s gone,” he said.

The floor of the living room collapsed as a result of the crash, and it took crews until about 9:15 a.m. to shore up the building so that crews could go inside and recover the pilot’s body.

“Were going to document the scene, and then we’re going to take all the evidence, and complete the investigation in a step-by-step process,” National Transportation Safety Board air safety investigator Tim Sorensen said.

Although the plane was severely damaged in the crash, Sorensen said it did not appear as if the plane broke up or suffered a structural failure midflight.

“The pilot advised air traffic control that he had some type of engine problem, and he was attempting to return to the airport, when he lost control and crashed,” Sorensen said.

Sorensen said it was too early to determine if Tuesday morning’s frigid weather was a factor in the crash. He said a preliminary report on the crash would be released in about a week. A final report would not be available for 9 to 12 months.

No fire was reported after the crash, but there was a small fuel leak from the plane.

Some neighbors were awake at the time, and felt the impact of the crash.

“The house shook. It wasn’t a big boom noise. It just shook the ground, and the chandelier had shaken, or something, so we went out the front, and went down there, and I was astounded that it took the whole front of that house out,” Robin Vravlic said.

Hannah Vravlic said she felt “really lucky” the crash wasn’t more severe.

“It’s only four houses (away). It could have been one of those huge planes with more people, and something could’ve went wrong. Thank God it was just something minor,” she said.

Two homes next door to the crash site were evacuated as a precaution.

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