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Monee man killed in crash of small plane near Rockford, friend says

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Updated: July 28, 2012 6:18AM

As flying enthusiasts go, it would be difficult to soar above Tom Plodzien, to hear one of his south suburban neighbors tell it.

Their homes are in a gated community in Monee Township that encompasses Meadow Creek Airpark, billed on its website as a place where “pilots live with their planes.” Plodzien lived there since 1991 and was the airpark manager, neighbor James Manning said.

On Tuesday, Manning, who said Plodzien was his best friend, was in shock. A single-engine plane crash Tuesday morning in a cornfield near Rockford killed the pilot, the only person on board, and Manning said it was Plodzien.

Authorities had not confirmed the man’s identity Tuesday night, but the plane was registered to a Monee man, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

At age 77, Plodzien flew his plane daily to Rockford to work, and he and Manning flew to numerous tourist destinations over the years, Manning said.

“He’s a really good pilot. He was a really good guy. I can’t imagine him being gone,” said Manning, who said he heard the news of Plodzien’s death about 9 a.m. “We flew all over the country together.”

Manning said Plodzien is survived by a wife and daughter. Family members could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Manning said Plodzien left Meadow Creek Airpark — which features a 3,400-foot runway amid large houses just off Harlem Avenue — about 6:50 a.m.

Before it crashed just before 8 a.m., the plane had taken off from DeKalb. It crashed about eight miles southeast of Chicago-Rockford International Airport, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said.

Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn said the pilot told controllers at Rockford’s airport that he had smoke in his cockpit and planned an emergency landing. When the airport lost contact with him, the sheriff’s department started a search and found the plane engulfed in flames, Harn said.

The pilot was flying under visual flight rules and was not necessarily in contact with air traffic control, Cory said.

The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board were at the scene and investigating. The aircraft was a Lancair 235M, according to FAA records.

The Rockford Register Star newspaper reported that the plane was classified as an experimental aircraft by the FAA. Manufactured in 1991, it was an amateur-built plane from a kit — as opposed to a factory-built aircraft, which is typically more expensive — a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association of Oshkosh, Wis., told the Register Star.

So-called experimental aircraft must meet rigorous testing and annual inspections from federally licensed airplane mechanics, the spokesman said. He said the safety record for experimental aircraft is similar to factory-built planes, and crash rates are less than 1 percent higher.

Contributing: Mike Deacon, Sun-Times Media Wire, AP

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