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Feds: Couple wanted to buy plane that crashed

NTSB investigators examine the wreckage of the single-engine

NTSB investigators examine the wreckage of the single-engine plane that crashed in Shirley. (Aug. 20, 2012) Credit: James Carbone

An upstate couple looking to buy a plane were on a test flight of the single-engine Socata TB10 that crashed shortly after takeoff Sunday in Shirley, killing two of the three people on board, federal officials said Monday.

Killed in the late-morning crash were the plane's owner, David J. McElroy, 53, of Orient, and Jane Unhjem, 60, an assistant school superintendent from upstate Goshen.

Unhjem's husband, Erik, 61, who was also onboard, remained in critical condition Monday night at Stony Brook University Hospital, officials said.

NTSB investigators were back at the crash site yesterday. A final report could take 12 to 18 months, officials said.

The plane's maintenance records were to be a focal point, said Brian Rayner, senior air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, because "discrepancies" were found in the recent maintenance inspection of the plane.

Rayner said that the Federal Aviation Administration had provided the NTSB with two handwritten pages of the discrepancies, "everything from minor paint touch-ups to cleaning of components," he said. Also unresolved was whether the list of discrepancies came from the owner or the mechanic.

"To what degree the annual inspection was completed, whether it was completed, is undetermined at this time," Rayner said. "We haven't been able to get our hands on those records."

Rayner said he expected to speak with the mechanic Tuesday.

The Goshen couple flew to Long Island from Dutchess County aboard a single-engine Cessna 172 to inspect McElroy's plane before making the purchase, Rayner said.

Erik Unhjem is a member of the Grasshopper Flying Club based in Poughkeepsie, said Robert Hill, president of the club. "Mr. Unhjem was a wonderful pilot," Hill said. "We were devastated" after hearing of the crash.

Mark Nelson, the club's secretary, said he knew Unhjem to be a "upstanding gentleman, fine pilot and a nice man."

Investigators don't know who was at the controls at about 11:50 a.m. Sunday when the single-engine plane encountered trouble on takeoff, clipped a tree on a residential street in Shirley and plunged into a trash container before it was engulfed in flames.

McElroy and Erik Unhjem were in the plane's front seats, authorities said. Neighbors on Helene Avenue near Crestwood Drive used garden hoses to try to douse the fiery wreck. McElroy died at the scene and Jane Unhjem died several hours later at Stony Brook University Hospital, officials said.

Both McElroy and Erik Unhjem were experienced pilots, but it was not known who was behind the controls at the time of the crash, Rayner said. FAA records indicated that McElroy's third-class license was inactive, having expired in August 2005. The aircraft is registered in Florida to McElroy, according to FAA records.

Both men had clean flying records with the FAA, meaning no disciplinary actions had been taken against their pilot licenses, an FAA spokesman said Monday. According to federal records, Unhjem has had his pilot license since 2001.

The plane had been stored in Mattituck and moved to Brookhaven Calabro Airport on a "ferry permit" for annual maintenance, Rayner said.

McElroy has lived in Florida as well as Southold and, recently, Orient. No one came to the door Monday night at his home in Orient.

On Staten Island, a woman who answered the door at the home of the Unhjems' daughter Gayle, said the 27-year-old was at her father's hospital bedside.

"They are the most wonderful family you could ever know," said the woman, who declined to give her name.

Jean Unhjem, Erik Unhjem's 88-year-old mother, said she had yet to speak to her son because "he's under heavy sedation."

"I'm in grief," she said when reached at her home in Goshen. "I've lost a daughter-in-law that's like a daughter to me."

With Gary Dymski, Bill Mason, Meghan Murphy and John Valenti

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