New: Pilot, plane involved in previous emergency landing

ashain@thestate.com jwilkinson@thestate.comAugust 12, 2013 

Pilot Lee Buffington seemed to know what he was doing when he methodically landed his company’s single-engine plane safely without landing gear at a downtown Columbia airport on Monday.

The Fort Payne, Ala. landscaping business owner had done it before.

Buffington belly landed a four-seat Piper PA-24-250 at Tuscaloosa Regional Airport four years ago, according to Federal Aviation Administration records released Tuesday.

Buffington was on a 20-minute check flight of new radios when he was unable to extend the landing gear in the home city for the University of Alabama, according to FAA records.

On Monday, Buffington was piloting the same plane, made in 1960, when the landing gear would not come down. He was forced to slide along the Hamilton-Owens Airport runway to a stop. He was not injured.

Efforts to reach Buffington were unsuccessful. A woman answering the phone at his business, Turf Tamer, on Tuesday said Buffington was in meetings all day in South Carolina. He was scheduled to return to the office on Wednesday.

As part of its investigation in the Columbia incident, the FAA is looking at why the aircraft’s registration was not renewed after expiring on June 30.

The agency had no records of enforcement action against Buffington.

Buffington was flying from Fort Payne in northeastern Alabama to Hamilton-Owens Airport when he reported being unable to extend his landing gear Monday afternoon, according to authorities and online flight trackers.

The aircraft made about five low-level passes over the general-aviation airport in the Rosewood neighborhood before landing.

Each time, Buffington pulled up a few feet before touching down on the runway. Aviation officials closed the airport while the plane circled. Columbia Fire Department trucks were called to the scene and waited for nearly an hour before the plane landed.

At about 4:45 p.m., Buffington lowered the belly of the aircraft gently onto the runway.

The plane slid briefly to an uneventful halt. Buffington bolted out of plane as a Columbia Fire Department truck darted across the runway. With no smoke or flames visible, he returned to the plane to retrieve some gear.

The airport reopened around 6:30 p.m. Monday after fire crews were able to lift the plane away from the runway, Hamilton-Owens director Chris EversmannCQ said.

Authorities did not say why the plane’s landing gear malfunctioned. Buffington was taken to the Hamilton-Owens Airport aviation office on Monday and declined to talk to the media.

Hamilton-Owens Airport is popular for smaller aircraft because of its proximity to downtown Columbia and Williams-Brice Stadium. During the past 13 years, at least five people have died and another two have been injured seriously in five accidents and emergency landings near Hamilton-Owens Airport, according to news reports.

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