Student pilot crashes at Park Rapids airport

A student pilot escaped serious injuries Saturday evening when his plane landed, then bounced in a field near the Park Rapids Municipal Airport shortly after takeoff.

Cessna aircraft
A Cessna aircraft sits in a field near Park Rapids Municipal Airport after the pilot apparently overshot the runway on takeoff Saturday night. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

A student pilot escaped serious injuries Saturday evening when his plane landed, then bounced in a field near the Park Rapids Municipal Airport shortly after takeoff.

The Federal Aviation Administration concluded pilot error was to blame for the crash of the light Cessna 172 aircraft, owned by the University of North Dakota.

The pilot, Li Yang, was treated and released from St. Joseph's Area Health Services in Park Rapids shortly after the 10 p.m. crash. Yang is an employee of Air China and an aviation student at UND's School of Aerospace Sciences, said UND spokesman Peter Johnson.

Local airport officials said Yang was performing night "touch and go's" when the crash occurred. Those maneuvers allow student pilots to land, then take off immediately to practice.

Yang was on a cross-country solo flight, headed back to Grand Forks when the accident occurred.


"When you take off, the runway behind you isn't any good to you," said Park Rapids flight instructor Larry Hetrick. "I'm surmising he landed and took off without enough runway left."

Hetrick said the Park Rapids runway - 5,498 feet - doesn't give much of a margin of error for touch and go's, especially at night.

The heavily damaged plane was still sitting 300 feet off the runway Monday, deep tracks visible through the grass where the plane landed nose down. Bits of debris were scattered 100 feet behind the eventual resting place. One wing appeared as if it had clipped the ground on impact.

"He hit pretty hard," Hetrick said. The plane's nose nearly fell off on impact; tall grass was wedged in the engine.

Johnson said arrangements will be made to retrieve the plane. "We just don't have many of these but we don't go off and leave them," he said.

Hetrick said the FAA requires student pilots to have a minimum of 40 hours of flight training, generally 20 hours of dual flying with a flight instructor and 20 hours of solo flying, prior to licensure.

"The average is pretty much 55 hours now until your final check ride, but every student is different," Hetrick said. "I've had students ready to solo after eight hours" and others who take longer.

"It's like driving," he said.


Hetrick has been a licensed pilot for 42 years and a flight instructor since 1985. He said he occasionally touches base with UND flight instructors. The college program is 40 years old.

UND currently has 900 students and flies more than 130,000 miles annually in its 120 planes and flight simulators, Johnson said.

The aerospace college gives flight instruction to traditional students and many foreign workers under various contracts, Johnson said. He doubted language contributed to the crash, since all the foreign students are provided interpreters.

"English is the universal language of aviation all over the world," he said. UND has trained pilots and air traffic controllers in many countries, he added.

Both plane and pilot are insured through the university, Johnson said.

Ironically, 50 UND alumni, faculty and former staff gathered at Headwaters Country Club in Park Rapids hours before the crash at an annual reunion.

Hetrick, who walked away from a plane crash several years ago when his aircraft blew an oil pump at night, says he's always amazed at the media attention air accidents get.

"With plane crashes you have fatalities and people who walk away," he said. "It's the same with car crashes. Some are fatal. Some aren't."


After inspecting the Cessna, Hetrick was on his way to teach another student pilot the intricacies of landing and taking off.

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