COLUMBIA, SC — Update at the bottom of the story
Pilot Lee Buffington knew what he was doing when he methodically landed his companys single-engine plane safely without landing gear at a downtown Columbia airport on Monday.
Thats because 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. Then, Buffington was on a 20-minute flight to check out new radios when he was unable to extend the planes landing gear to land in the home city of 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 again. He was forced to slide along the Hamilton-Owens Airport runway to a stop.
Efforts to reach Buffington, who was not injured, Monday and Tuesday 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 Wednesday.
As part of its investigation in the Columbia incident, the FAA is looking at why the aircrafts registration was not renewed after expiring on June 30.
The agency had no records of enforcement action against Buffington. He received his private pilots license in 2000, the FAA said.
Buffington was flying from Fort Payne in northeastern Alabama to Hamilton-Owens Airport when he reported that he was unable to extend his planes 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.
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 about 6:30 p.m. Monday after fire crews were able to lift the plane away from the runway, Hamilton-Owens director Chris Eversmann said.
Authorities did not say why the planes 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.
UPDATE: Buffington told his local paper, the Times-Journal, on Wednesday that the plane's registration was not renewed after an address change snafu. Its not like it was something we were trying to avoid, he said. Thats something well get taken care of.
Buffington said he tried for about half an hour to extend the landing gear. He then spent about an hour burning fuel and making practice runs to test winds and familiarize himself with the airport.
Its something you think through when youre a pilot, he said. You prepare as best you can. I was just ready to get on the ground at that point.
Despite another belly landing in the same aircraft four years ago, Buffington said he loves the plane hes owned for about eight years. Buffington plans to tear down the engine and fix the propeller, which was ruined.
I wouldnt doubt getting in it again, he said. I think its definitely flyable.
Staff writer Jeff Wilkinson contributed.