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A Bluffton man died Friday after the lightweight aircraft he was piloting crashed in eastern Georgia.
Christopher William Bowen, 55, had been flying his gyroplane for about 15 minutes near an airport in Wrens, Ga., before it went down in an open cotton field around 4 p.m. and burst into flames, Jefferson County Emergency Manager Jim Anderson said Saturday.
Bowen was in Georgia for the annual "Wrens-O.B. Brown Memorial Fly-In," an event held by Chapter 172 of the Experimental Aircraft Association, Anderson said.
Bowen was making what Anderson called a test run Friday in preparation for the event which began Saturday.
A gyroplane is a small, lightweight aircraft that takes off similarly to an airplane, but lands like an helicopter.
Pilot Barry Kroeplin, 52, of Charlotte, N.C., was flying his own gyroplane when he saw Bowen's aircraft go down.
"When I got here today Chris already had his rotor on," Kroeplin said Friday. "We talked for a little bit and then he took off."
Kroeplin was not far behind him.
"He flew around the airport 10 or 15 times and then flew out over the fields," Kroeplin said. "I wasn't more than a mile or half mile behind him. I saw him make a turn and then he just kept going down."
Kroeplin said he has been at events with Bowen across the southeast for about three years.
"I didn't see anything fall off the plane or it do anything odd or anything," Kroeplin said. "He just made that turn and went down ... I know he had good training. I've seen him fly a lot of times. He was a good pilot."
Bowen got his student pilot's license May 2010 and registered the plane shortly there after, according to online Federal Aviation Administration records.
John Magnan, the secretary of the EAA Chapter 172, said Wrens has been holding fly-ins twice a year since the mid-1990s.
"In the fall, we sometimes get 15 or 20 gyroplanes," Magnan said. They're a lot cheaper to fly than a helicopter and are normally very safe aircraft."
Magnan said there have been incidents at the gathering before where aircraft have gone down hard, but this is the first fatal accident.
"I still believe these things are safer than regular planes," Kroeplin said, pointing to his own gyro. "I fly both kinds and even after seeing that, I'm still much more comfortable in this."
The cause of the crash incident is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, Anderson said.
Follow Anne Christnovich on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_CrimeNOB
The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle contributed to this report