By AMY LINDBLOM
Emergency crews raced to Columbia Airport yesterday morning after learning of an accident that had the makings of a disaster: An airplane had hit a 10,000-gallon fuel tank.
As it turned out, there was no fire, a pilot walked away with minor injuries and his plane was left with a bumped nose and no propeller.
Gale Jennings of San Diego had just finished fueling his Piper Colt plane, but was having trouble starting it, said Donna Joyce, also of San Diego. She was waiting nearby as her husband, Patrick, was with their plane, waiting to fuel up.
She saw what happened to Jennings' plane:
"He was trying to hand-crank the propeller and had the throttle open," Donna Joyce said. "He kept going in and out of the cockpit, fiddling with the controls, and going back to the prop. Then the plane started, and he was hanging onto it running along beside it."
Donna Joyce said she yelled to her husband to get out of the way, and she took off running as fast as she could to get away from the fuel tanks.
"I just knew it was going to hit the tank and blow, taking the whole airport with it," Donna Joyce said.
It hit, but there was no explosion. The plane's nose was crumpled, but the tank was slightly dented.
The Joyces and Jennings had spent the weekend in Tuolumne County along with other members of a flying club. The members arrived Friday night and Saturday, and camped on airport grounds.
Another witness, Sterling Bigbee, a retired airplane mechanic, was at the airport yesterday morning and saw the accident and heard a loud thunk when Jennings' plane hit the tank.
When the plane started moving, Bigbee said, Jennings tried to hang onto the right wing strut to slow it down. But by hanging onto the strut, he turned the plane at a hard right into the fuel tank around the corner from the fueling area.
When the plane hit the tank, the propeller flew off and landed about 100 feet away, Bigbee said.