PORTLAND – The propeller of the airplane in which two men died Saturday was not turning when the plane hit the ground just outside the Portland International Jetport, a federal investigator said Monday.

“The aircraft wobbled a bit as it took off,” said Butch Wilson, an air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, during a news conference at the jetport.

The air traffic controller who was monitoring the flight asked the pilot, Mark Haskell, if he needed to return to the jetport and Haskell indicated that he did, Wilson said.

The plane had reached an altitude of about 300 feet when it banked sharply to the left, Wilson said. It then went “nose down” into the ground near the intersection of Maine Mall Road and Western Avenue in South Portland.

“The (wooden) propeller was not rotating on impact,” Wilson said, indicating that the engine may have lost power.

The crash killed Haskell, a 42-year-old air traffic controller from Brunswick, and Thomas Casagrande, 66, of Portland, a retired military aviator who flew hundreds of combat missions.

Haskell was an experienced pilot, having logged more than 400 hours of flight time, according to Wilson, who said private pilots typically average about 50 hours of flight time a year.

Casagrande had more than 60 medals and commendations from his military service, 13,000 hours of flying time and experience flying more than 190 types of aircraft. Few people in the world knew as much about as many aircraft.

That was one reason Haskell sought him out in 2001 after buying a refurbished Soviet-era aeronautics trainer. Casagrande was one of the only people who could train a pilot to fly the 1950s vintage, two-seat Aerostar Yak-52.

Pilots who knew him were awed by Casagrande’s knowledge and experience, and the thorough precision with which he approached every flight.

“Every person associated with him through flying in any way knew this was the guy. This was the guy who had Chuck Yeager-like experiences,” said Michael Coyne, a professional pilot who described Casagrande as his best friend and mentor. “There’s probably not 10 people in the world with more flying experience.”

They also admired how generous he was with his knowledge, particularly for people who were as enthusiastic about flying as he was.

“You could be a student pilot with no hours and he would treat you with the same generosity and same respect (as an experienced pilot) as long as you were interested in bettering yourself in the craft of flying. That was the price of admission,” said Jeff Van West, an aviation writer who knew Casagrande through the Portland Flying Club. Haskell was one of those people who relished flying, and would push himself to learn more.

Haskell, an air traffic controller at the jetport, had been away from his plane, the Lizzy-Lou, because of other commitments. It made sense that he would ask Casagrande to join him Saturday for his flight review, a proficiency test that the federal government requires pilots to take every two years.

Casagrande was retired but kept his instructor certification. When pilots asked him to join them for flight reviews, or to augment their skills, he did it for free.

Casagrande was a rich source of knowledge and stories. But he shunned the limelight.

Van West sought unsuccessfully to write articles about him. He eventually recorded him for a podcast, but his friend asked him afterward not to post it.

“Tom was a quiet national treasure living in our midst,” Van West said.

Casagrande had a reputation for doing exhaustive research on the planes that he flew.

“It didn’t matter if he was jumping in a little Cessna, he would still go through every single item in the checklist and do it every single time the right way,” Coyne said.

He wore fireproof Nomex gloves every time he flew — just in case. On Saturday, he and Haskell were wearing full flight suits and parachutes.

“There couldn’t have been a better person for Mark Haskell to have than to have Tom in the back seat. He knew the plane probably better than the people who built it,” Coyne said.

Casagrande was a helicopter pilot with the 1st Cavalry Division during his first tour of duty in Vietnam. He was shot down three times. Once, he and three other survivors spent a night in the jungle hiding from the Viet Cong, whom they could hear walking and talking nearby.

They were rescued the next day by a helicopter crew that had come to destroy the wreckage of their chopper, to keep it from falling into enemy hands.

During his second tour, he flew covert reconnaissance missions. Once, he was flying a military version of a Kingair, basically a passenger plane, loaded with listening equipment, when a North Vietnamese Russian-made MiG-17 started to chase him.

As the jet closed on the much slower plane, Casagrande abruptly rolled his plane, dived and pulled up low over the jungle — a maneuver called a “Split S.”

He evaded the MiG until U.S. fighters arrived and chased it off.

Casagrande and the reconnaissance crew returned safely, but the aircraft’s metal frame was so twisted that the plane could not be flown again.

After 10 years in the Army, Casagrande became a civilian test pilot for the Department of Defense.

Wilson, from the National Transportation Safety Board, said it could take six months to a year for investigators to determine what caused Saturday’s crash.

The wreckage of the aircraft is being stored at the jetport. It will be examined starting today. “We’re going to start with the engine and work our way back,” Wilson said.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: dhoey@pressherald.com

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: dhench@pressherald.com