September 12, 2015

Evangelist’s Plane Was Bouncing Before Crash, Investigators Say

, news editor, Adventist Review

A small airplane piloted by Seventh-day Adventist evangelist William Pergerson II bounced back and forth during takeoff from a U.S. airport and made two half turns before diving nose-first into the ground, crash investigators said.

Pergerson, 48, died when his home-built One Easy plane slammed into a grassy field near one of the runways at the airport in Battle Creek, Michigan, and exploded into a ball of fire at 8:17 p.m. on Aug. 27.

He was leaving on a 20-minute flight home to his wife and two teenage children in Berrien Springs, Michigan, after holding an afternoon of final talks about an upcoming evangelistic series at the Battle Creek Tabernacle church.

An airport employee noticed that Pergerson’s One Easy plane was “bouncing” as it lifted off from the runway, an unusual behavior that prompted her to get the attention of another employee, crash investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said in a preliminary report this week.William Pergerson getting ready to leave his plane at the Battle Creek airport to ride into town with Bible worker Juanita Staten, who took this photo.

“She noticed the airplane, and saw that the wings were rocking back and forth during the takeoff,” the report said. “Once airborne, the airplane turned around and came back to the runway for a landing. She did not see the crash, because a parked airplane blocked her view.”

A control tower operator, who cleared Pergerson to take off from runway 23R, also observed that the plane had flown erratically and said it had not followed a straight path down the runway, either.

“The operator reported that airplane wandered on the runway and did not track a straight line; then continued to fly erratically once airborne,” the report said. “The airplane made a 180-degree turn and flew back down runway 5L, before making another 180-degree turn, towards runway 23R. The controller added that the airplane made a sudden nosedive, during the turn towards the runway and impacted the ground.”

Airport officials said earlier that Pergerson had maintained constant communication with the control tower until the moment of the crash. No transcript of the conversation has been released, and the preliminary crash report shed no light on it.

Firefighters quickly extinguished the crash blaze, but little remained of the plane other than the charred engine. The flightlog used by Pergerson, a long-time pilot who often flew between speaking engagements, was recovered undamaged. He was the sole occupant aboard the plane.

The National Transportation Safety Board will release a full report about the crash in a year.

Memorial services will be held for William Carlson Pergerson II at the Battle Creek Tabernacle on Sept. 19 and at the Pioneer Memorial Church at Andrews University on Sept. 20.

Pergerson, once a hard-core legalist whose evangelism meetings resulted in few baptisms, changed his sermons to focus on Jesus Christ and His righteousness after undergoing a personal transformation in his walk with Christ in the early 2000s, his wife and friends said. His powerful sermons led to hundreds of baptisms and the establishment of new churches in Minneapolis and St. Louis.

Read “Evangelist, 48, Killed in U.S. Plane Crash”

Pergerson worked for the past two years as manager, director, and evangelist for the 1888 Message Study Committee, an Adventist supporting ministry based in Berrien Springs. He also founded and operated Gospelnet, Inc., a nonprofit organization to share the gospel that held the registration and operating papers for the plane in the crash.

Pergerson flew into the Battle Creek airport around 12:45 p.m. on Aug. 27. Shortly after he parked, oil was spotted at the back of the plane, where the engine is housed, the crash report said.

“People who met the pilot reported that there was oil on the back of the airplane,” it said. “They added the pilot wiped the oil off the airplane and recalled that the pilot stated he had not put the engine oil cap on tight.”

The weather was clear when Pergerson returned about seven hours later for the flight home, the report said.

The report said Pergerson’s first attempt to exit the airport ramp for the runway was blocked by the arrival of a business jet.

“Once the accident pilot moved his airplane to the side, the jet entered the ramp and the accident pilot started taxiing towards the runway for departure,” it said.

“The airport's security cameras caught sections of the accident sequence, and the video was retained for further review,” it said.