Pilot dies in fiery crash

Smoke billows from a wooded area west of the Princeton Airport runway where a plane crashed on Monday afternoon. (Jeff Hage / Union-Eagle)
Smoke billows from a wooded area west of the Princeton Airport runway where a plane crashed on Monday afternoon. (Jeff Hage / Union-Eagle)

A would-be hunting trip turned tragic Monday afternoon when a Princeton man died in a fiery plane crash near the Princeton Municipal Airport.

Kevin Covlin, 51, co-owner of Princeton-based FLR Sanders, was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash. The Union-Eagle ran a front page story on Covlin and FLR Sanders last week.

The single engine 1956 Piper Pacer “tail dragger” aircraft took off from the Princeton airport at around 12:45 p.m. Covlin was heading off on a hunting trip with his dog to North Dakota, Mille Lacs County Sheriff Brent Lindgren said. But it appears he had some kind of trouble with the plane shortly after take-off.

Jason Erickson, of Monticello, who operates a flight school at the Princeton airport, was on the airport grounds at the time of the crash and reported hearing what he described as an explosion, Lindgren said.

Upon looking outside from his business, Erickson saw smoke and discovered the airplane crash just west of the runway. He observed an individual in the aircraft who was not moving and was on fire, Lindgren said.

Deputies from Mille Lacs and Sherburne counties, officers with the Princeton Police Department, the Princeton Fire Department and a North Ambulance crew all responded and put out the fire. Covlin perished in the crash, Lindgren said, and his remains were taken to the Anoka County Medical Examiner’s office where an autopsy was performed and identification confirmed.

Covlin’s dog was found inside a portable kennel, outside the aircraft and clear of the fire zone, Lindgren said. The dog was taken to the Princeton Veterinary Clinic where it was checked out and returned to the Covlin family.

The Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Department is working with the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board to determine a cause of the crash.

The first call came in at 12:59 p.m. when the Princeton Fire Department was called out to an unknown fire west of the airport. At that point, it was unknown what was burning, according to radio traffic from the Mille Lacs County Communications Center. White smoke billowing from a wooded area just west of the runway was observed. By 1:11 p.m. the Fire Department was being called on for more manpower as a downed aircraft was being reported. Within minutes, emergency services personnel from at least 12 vehicles worked the scene. The crash scene was cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape.

Prior to Monday, the last plane crash in Princeton airport was on Nov. 22, 2011. Coincidently, it was Covlin’s business partner in FLR Sanders, Barry Ramage Jr., who was flying a Cessna 152 that lost power. Ramage’s plane reached an altitude of 400 feet and was forced to make an emergency landing south of the airport on land owned by Prairie Restoration. The plane flipped end-over-end when it touched down and sustained heavy damage, but Ramage was uninjured.