by: Dave Faherty Updated:
NEWTON, N.C. - A pilot was killed Sunday when his plane crashed in a Catawba County field.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators arrived at the crash site Monday morning on Balls Creek Road.
Channel 9 found out that the pilot had been up for only about 15 to 20 minutes when the crash happened out in a wheat field.
Neighbors describe seeing the plane in trouble before it went down.
Brenda Blackburn could see the plane flying around her home late Sunday along Balls Creek Road. She said the small plane's engine quit several times before the crash.
"Just a plane a swirling, and all of the sudden the engine died, and it went down and we heard a crash,” she said.
Just down the road, Keith Lee was playing volleyball when he noticed the plane. Lee, who is also a pilot, said the plane was flying at about 1,500 feet while making maneuvers over the southern part of Catawba County.
"He was chopping the throttle, banking it on steep banks, but he was doing it on a real slow speed," Lee said.
The plane is registered to James Thomas, from Denver. Friends said he had taken off from a grass field at Laney's Airport, 4 miles away. Family members said he had been flying for about four years.
Charles Laney was one of the last people to talk with him.
"I told him to be careful. He's a very good guy. Good person. Do anything in the world for you,” Laney said.
The NTSB is just starting its investigation.
An Eyewitness News crew could see where both wings, along with the propeller, came off the home-built aircraft during the crash. Channel 9 asked investigators what they think might have happened.
"From what I saw it looked like a strictly vertical descent. The best way I can describe it is pancake,” said Robert Gretz, senior air safety investigator.
Investigators think they will be able to tell a lot more once they move the plane out of the field and look underneath. A preliminary report will be ready within five to 10 days.
Read our past coverage: Small plane crash in Newton Sunday kills one