Saving lives was pilot's final mission

The remains of Thomas Lennon's MU-2 "high-wing" turboprop plane, which was carrying checks and other financial documents, lay in the yard of a home near Baltimore-Washington International Airport, killing the pilot. No one on the ground was injured when the plane crashed about 7:25 a.m., stopping just short of the home's front door, authorities said.

FERNDALE, Md. -- The government blamed the pilot for a 2004 crash in this community in the shadow of Baltimore-Washington International Airport. But the residents who live here view Thomas Lennon as a hero.

On May 14, 2004, Lennon's Mitsubishi MU-2 turboprop crashed in the heart of this residential neighborhood at 7:24 a.m. amid calm winds, a few clouds and 70-degree weather, as he was finishing his third round-trip since the night before.

Residents had grown accustomed to the roar of airplanes, but on this morning the cacophony was unmistakable.

Homeowners saw the plane flying abnormally, one thinking at first it was a stunt plane and others witnessing it pass "very low near a high school." As the MU-2 neared a tree line, its nose flipped up and back, then descended sharply to the ground.

One resident said the "horrific loud engine" was so deafening it made her house vibrate. She saw plane parts flying into the yard and becoming wedged in a tree. The left engine came to rest on a resident's boat trailer.

Lennon, 34, was killed, but averted further casualties by landing in the largest driveway area on the street.

"Everyone in the neighborhood believed Tom did his best to avoid any collateral Damage," said Dave Vogel, a retired supermarket manager who lived across the street at the time.

The pilot had flown multiple round trips the two prior evenings, and the plane's right engine had been reinstalled just three days earlier.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded mechanical failure was not involved, but instead cited the pilot's ''failure to maintain airspeed during a sharp turn'' as causing the crash.

But a subsequent Federal Aviation Administration report found that the MU-2's rate of fatal accidents involving loss of control during emergencies was seven times higher than in similar planes, and Lennon's accident drew the interest of members of Congress concerned about the plane's high crash rate.

Lennon was an experienced pilot logging 6,800 hours of total flight time, and he flew for Epps Air Service, an Atlanta company that uses a fleet of MU-2s to transport canceled checks.

Founder Pat Epps said Lennon was "a very good pilot'' and that the company focuses on training and maintenance. As for handling the plane, he said, "I think the MU-2, as with many airplanes, is a plane you just pay more attention to."

| Reporting by Ronnie Greene | Photography by Candace Barbot | Audio Editing by Rhonda Victor Sibilia | Online Production by Stephanie Rosenblatt | (c) Miami Herald July 9, 2006 |