Florida couple killed when their RDU-bound plane crashed in Umstead State Park

Two people were killed when a small plane crashed in William B. Umstead State Park as it was attempting to land at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Sunday evening.

The State Highway Patrol announced the fatalities at noon Monday. They were later identified as Dr. Harvey Partridge, a veterinarian, and his wife Patricia Partridge, both 72, of Terra Ceia, Florida, near St. Petersburg, where Partridge founded Partridge Animal Hospital. A post on the hospital’s Facebook page described Partridge as “an experienced pilot.”

The plane was found off the Reedy Creek Trail shortly after 10 a.m. Monday, more than 14 hours after it was reported missing, said RDU spokeswoman Crystal Feldman. She said she did not have information about where the flight originated.

The plane is a Piper PA-32, a single-engine plane that seats up to six people, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The federal agency said the plane was approaching Runway 32, a small general aviation runway that extends east-west, perpendicular to the airport’s two main runways, when air traffic controllers lost contact with it.

The National Transportation Safety Board will lead the investigation to determine what caused the crash. Board spokesman Keith Holloway said an investigator will examine the plane and the scene of the crash, review communications, radar data and weather information and try to speak to witnesses, if any. The investigator also will review maintenance records for the plane and the pilot’s medical and flying history.

The NTSB will release a preliminary report, describing the facts surrounding the crash, in about 10 days, Holloway said. A final report identifying the likely cause of the crash could take a year or more to complete.

FAA air traffic controllers contacted the airport about 7:25 p.m. Sunday to say they had lost radar contact with a plane as it approached RDU. A statement from the airport later in the evening said the small general aviation aircraft was near Umstead State Park, which borders the east side of RDU.

The airport’s runways were closed for about 20 minutes as fire and rescue crews responded to the report of a missing plane.

Searchers combed through Umstead in the dark Sunday night looking for the plane. Feldman said a State Highway Patrol helicopter looked for a heat signature on the ground, which might indicate the plane’s location, but the search was suspended about 2 a.m.

“Umstead State Park is 5,200 acres of dense forest with few roads and little to no light,” Feldman said Sunday. “It could take a very long time for us to find this plane.”

The search resumed at dawn Monday. It was led by the Raleigh Fire Department, with help from a dozen state and local rescue and law enforcement agencies.

Kendall Hocutt, the Raleigh Fire Department’s assistant chief of operations, described the search area as “rugged,” but did not provide any more details about where the plane crashed. Reedy Creek Trail runs the length of the park, from near RDU to where it emerges on the Raleigh side at Reedy Creek Road.

Umstead closed for the day Monday. The park will remain closed until the bodies have been removed from the plane and the NTSB investigator is finished with the site, said parks spokeswoman Katie Hall. It will reopen Tuesday morning, though portions of the Reedy Creek and Company Mill trails will remain closed, the park announced late Monday.

Small planes often fly over the forests of Umstead on their approach to RDU, and a handful have crashed in the park over the years. In 1992, Wake County Commissioner Herb Stout and his passenger, Brian R. Benson of Durham, died when their Piper Arrow crashed into the woods as Stout prepared to land.

The pilot of a sky-diving plane on its way from Illinois to North Carolina for maintenance was killed when the twin-engine aircraft crashed into the park shortly after midnight in the summer of 2000. Two passengers survived and spent three hours huddled in a sleeping bag near the wreckage until a park ranger, drawn by the smell of aviation fuel, found them.

Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.