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Friend: Pilot was an 'angel'

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Bob Watson said the twin-engine airplane that fell from the skies over Lawrenceville this week was in "absolutely immaculate" condition, as stellar as the pilot flying it.

Watson, a seasoned pilot too busy to fly these days, had lent the vintage 1960 Beechcraft Queen Air to longtime pal and plane broker Mell Hall, owner of Falcon Aviation, in hopes of selling it. Hall was the most skilled aviator Watson had ever met.

"My wife felt like (Hall) was one of God's angels flying the aircraft," Watson said. "You just felt that comfortable ... He was born to fly, like the airplane was part of him."

Which makes it all the more confounding, Watson said, that a plane helmed by Hall crashed seconds after takeoff near downtown Lawrenceville, after both engines had lost power -- a highly unusual malfunction, he said.

The crash killed Hall, 67, and injured three passengers, including Hall's son, Josh, 25.

An investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board did not return a call for comment Thursday. Investigators have previously said a scientific probe into the crash could take up to a year, which is standard.

The investigation will include reconstruction of the plane from wreckage found at the scene. Preliminary findings have corroborated what witnesses told police -- both engines lost power less than a minute after takeoff.

Watson wouldn't disclose the sale price of his aircraft, but said similar models in pristine shape fetch north of $300,000.

"The airplane's gone, but that's not a big thing," Watson said. "I'd give three of the airplanes to have (Hall) back. My heart's torn out over this."

Watson recalled his friend of two decades as an adventurous spirit with a soft spot for the aviation enthused community of Barbour Island, off the Georgia coast between Savannah and Brunswick.

Hall built a house on the island -- home to a grass landing strip and no bridges -- by hauling materials over in a John boat. He loved to fetch crabs and cast for shrimp. He had married his wife, Mary, a year ago and was planning to retire, Watson said.

"They were having a good time together," he said.

Based on past conversations with Hall, and a talk with his son, Watson believes the pilot intentionally took the brunt of the plane's impact, yawing the fuselage to clip trees and hit the ground. Watson thinks Hall was aiming for a pond but missed by a few yards.

"When you take off from (Briscoe Field), you look for places to set an airplane down ... there aren't many," Watson said. "You have to have all your scruples together and not lose concentration."

The incident marks the second fatal crash involving a twin-engine plane taking off from the airport since October, when a Cessna headed for Tennessee slammed into Lawrenceville home, killing the pilot and a woman inside the home.

NTSB aviation accident data show seven fatal crashes have occurred in Lawrenceville since 1970. The statewide total for that time span is 555.

Smith, the airport manager, was unsure how many of those flights had left the Lawrenceville airfield. Tragedies like Monday's crash bring the tight-knit pilot community closer, he said.

"People are aware of what has happened, and I'm sure they'll be more cautious in their actions," Smith said.

Mell Hall's funeral is planned for Saturday at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, where he was a member.

Staff Writer Heath Hamacher contributed to this report.