Local couple dies in plane crash

Published 6:41 pm Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Many local residents are mourning the deaths of Dennis and Debbie O’Neal, a prominent Blounts Creek couple who perished in a small plane crash on Easter Sunday. The two were headed home from North Wilkesboro in a Lancair LC42 when their plane went down near a wooded, residential area in Winston Salem.

Dennis O’Neal, an optometrist with Washington Eye Center, and his wife, an English teaching instructor at East Carolina University and jewelry maker, were both licensed pilots.

National Transportation Safety Board officials continue to investigate the crash scene today.

“We’re continuing to examine the evidence and document the scene thoroughly. We’re looking at air traffic communication, radar data, if any type of emergency was declared,” said Keith Holloway, NTSB public affairs officer. “It’s still early. We aren’t making any conclusions (as to what caused the crash) at this point.”

Holloway said the aircraft was heavily burned due to post-fire impact.

According to NTSB officials, O’Neal reported engine trouble to air traffic controllers and stated his intention to land at Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston Salem.

Air traffic controller Larry Holland was manning the Smith Reynolds Airport tower when the crash occurred. Holland said air traffic control at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro notified him of the O’Neals’ aircraft but said they had lost contact with the Lancair.

Holland explained that limited visibility and the heavy cloud cover would have required O’Neal to land at Smith Reynolds using IFR (instrumental flight rules), in which a pilot controls the aircraft relying on flight instruments rather than outside visual references.

“At the time, the (cloud) ceiling was really low. I watched him on the radar then he disappeared off the radar. I never even talked to the guy,” Holland said. “I looked out to the west and there was a big mushroom cloud.”

It is unclear whether the O’Neals were IFR rated.

Libby Behr, River Walk Gallery and Arts Center member along with Debbie O’Neal, described Debbie as “an amazing person and funny and didn’t put up with anybody’s mess.” Debbie O’Neal had recently rejoined River Walk, selling her handcrafted silver and beaded jewelry in the Main Street, Washington, store.

Dennis O’Neal had been a physician at Washington Eye Center for 13 years and served on the board of The Blind Center. On the website, flying is listed as one of his hobbies, along with sailing, mountain biking and fly-fishing.

“Dennis O’Neal was a leader, a friend, a colleague and an inspiration to all of us here at Washington Eye Center. We will all miss him dearly,” said a statement from physicians and staff at the Washington Eye Center.

A candlelight memorial will be held at 6:30 p.m. tonight outside the office of Washington Eye Center.

A preliminary report on the crash’s cause will likely be posted on the NTSB website next week.