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Idyllic spring day was turned to a scene of tragedy in seconds

By Joanne Sweeney

Published 08/04/2015

It was a perfect day for flying at a popular Co Down private airport with little wind and clear conditions.

But the spring sunshine was shattered when an experienced pilot lost his life just after his microlight took off yesterday morning at Newtownards airport.

The death of married man Stephen McKnight has plunged the aviation fraternity into deep shock. He was flying the C12 microlight solo as he had done many times before.

Members of the Ulster Flying Club, which is based at the airport on the Portaferry Road on the edge of Strangford Lough, could not speak about the horrific accident which occurred within a minute of Mr McKnight getting his aircraft into the air.

Eyewitness Tony Murphy, of the Ards Walking group, had called into the clubhouse for a cup of coffee with a group of 16 other walkers.

While some were in the clubhouse, he and a few others including his wife Edna, opted to sit outside where the drama unfolded in front of his eyes.

"I seemed to be the only one out of my group to be looking left at the plane taking off at the far side part of the airfield," he said.

"It all happened so quickly, and it lasted less than a minute in total.

"I saw this plane taking off and it seemed to be struggling to gain height.

"It suddenly banked to the left and within a few seconds it just nose-dived straight in to the ground.

"Even though it was a brave distance away, I heard the thump of the impact.

"While I'm no expert, it seemed to be that the plane didn't reach the right speed for take-off and it only got into the air 50-60 feet before it crashed.

"There was a light aircraft in the air which had to circle above several times as the emergency services vehicles were using the runway as part of the rescue."

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