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Veteran, 88, flips WWII-era biplane, but ready to get back in air

Robert Fritts, 88, of Manorville, shown in a

Robert Fritts, 88, of Manorville, shown in a family photo, was bruised when his vintage biplane flipped while landing Saturday, July 25, 2015, at Klenawicus Airfield on Shelter Island. He said by phone from Stony Brook University Hospital that he expected to be released Sunday and could be flying again by the middle of next week. Credit: Fritt family

A World War II vet whose vintage biplane flipped over as he taxied at the Klenawicus Airfield on Shelter Island said Sunday he wants to get back in the air as soon as he can.

"I'm gung ho to go," Robert Fritts, 88, of Manorville, said in a phone interview from Stony Brook University Hospital, where he was taken after the crash Saturday. He said he had some bruises and expected to be released from the hospital Sunday.

"I could be flying by the middle of next week," he said.

Shelter Island police said his 1943 Boeing Stearman Model 75 flipped over on the grass airstrip at 10:20 a.m. Saturday while taxiing after landing. Fritts reported to the police that he had over-applied the brakes, causing the plane to flip.

He was brought to the hospital by police helicopter, police said. Police referred the incident to the National Transportation Safety Board, which was leading the investigation, and to the Federal Aviation Administration.

NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said the agency has not sent an investigator to the scene. "We are working with the FAA and also the local authorities and we're gathering information," Williams said.

Fritts said he had landed the World War II naval trainer and was rolling on the front wheels, but his tail was still a few inches off the ground. He was trying to see a plane that had landed ahead of him, which he said was difficult due to the airfield's design.

"I must have applied a little bit of brake with the tail fin part way up," he said. "The center of gravity shifted over so the nose went down, the prop hit the ground and then the airplane flipped over to its back."

Upside down, he removed his shoulder harness, undid his lap belt and dropped out of the plane and walked around, he said.

The accident was his first in more than 50 years of flying, he said.

"It's happened to the best of people," he said. "That kind of airplane is very tricky on the ground."

Though he worked in the engine room of the aircraft carrier USS Monterey in the South Pacific toward the end of World War II, he took up flying after the war.

Fritts may get back up in the air quickly, but his plane will not. A retired auto mechanic, he plans to repair the wings, tail wing and propeller himself.

"It's going to be all winter for me to repair it," he said.

Fritts said he and his wife, Shirley, have flown together all across the country. On Sunday, she said the accident had been a fright.

"When I heard about it I said, 'Oh my God, what happened?' " she said. "I think that's the first accident he's ever had."

For Fritts, flipping over hasn't diminished his joy of flying.

"It's a discipline that I enjoy," Fritts said.

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