Aviation community mourns deaths of flight instructor, others from Sunday plane crash

Investigators work Monday on Oak Hill Road in Leyden at the site of a plane crash that killed all three on board on Sunday morning.

Investigators work Monday on Oak Hill Road in Leyden at the site of a plane crash that killed all three on board on Sunday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Fredrika “Rika” Ballard was the founder of Fly Lugu flight school at Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport.

Fredrika “Rika” Ballard was the founder of Fly Lugu flight school at Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport. DON TREEGER/THE REPUBLICAN

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 01-16-2024 7:26 PM

Modified: 01-16-2024 7:42 PM


NORTHAMPTON — A flyer since her teens, Fly Lugu flight school founder Fredrika Ballard was remembered this week as a consummate professional who worked hard to support opportunities for women in aviation.

Ballard, 53, of Southwick, was killed Sunday when the Beechcraft Baron B55 in which she was traveling crashed in the woods near the Leyden-Greenfield town line minutes after takeoff from Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport.

Also killed were William Hampton, 68, of Indian Orchard, and Chad Davidson, 29, of Woodstock, Connecticut, according to Massachusetts State Police. Hampton was a flight instructor at Fly Lugu and Davidson was a student pilot, police said.

Bob Beede, a flight instructor at Northampton Airport, remembered Ballard’s passion for aviation. Her father was an aviator, and she first flew solo at the age of 16, according to a short biography on the Fly Lugu website.

“For me, flying means freedom,” she told BusinessWest for a profile in the magazine’s Women of Impact for 2023. “I’m as comfortable in the air as I am on the ground.”

With limited opportunities for women in aviation, she pursued a career in the medical services industry, Beede said. In 2016, she decided to get back into aviation as a career, and in 2019 she started Fly Lugu. The name refers to something Ballard’s father would say about flying: Look up, go up.

“I had the privilege of working [as her instructor] on her commercial and flight instructor certificates,” Beede said.

Ballard started Fly Lugu with a couple of planes she owned. Only four years later, it boasts nine planes, more than 10 instructors, 130 students on average and roughly 24 flights per day, according to the company.

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She went on to buy the flight maintenance company at Barnes, Aero Design, which is now integrated with the flight school. The company employs four mechanics and is involved with initiatives to build new hangars at the airport.

One of Ballard’s goals in establishing Fly Lugu, the company states, was to champion STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in the local community, an unmet need she had encountered as a member of Westfield Technical Academy’s advisory council.

She was a member of the Connecticut Ninety-Nines, International Organization of Women Pilots and Women in Aviation International, as well as Western Mass Wright Flight and the Kiwanis Club of Westfield.

Messages left at Fly Lugu this week have not been returned.

A tribute on the Connecticut Ninety-Nines Facebook page described Ballard as “an enormous supporter of women in aviation and an absolute inspiration to hundreds of pilots in the New England region and worldwide. ... Her dedication to getting more women and girls in the air was unmatched.”

Beede said the aviation community is close, and he and Ballard kept in touch regularly.

“I actually went with her to pick up that airplane that went down,” he said.

Officials have not confirmed who was flying the twin-engine plane, but Beede said Ballard was a backseat passenger, going along to monitor flight school performance.

“That exemplifies the passion she had for flying,” he said. “She was not just a figurehead.”

‘Corkscrew manner’

Authorities began searching for the crash site at approximately 11:30 a.m. after dog walkers in Leyden and Greenfield saw the plane go down and called 911.

They found the plane at 12:33 p.m. in a small clearing in the woods within the Leyden Wildlife Management Area, police said.

Flight tracking company FlightAware’s website shows the plane heading north from Barnes after takeoff at 11:06, making four loops over Whately and Deerfield, then continuing north to its final recorded position at 11:25.

One witness, Mark Duprey, told the Greenfield Recorder he was standing in his 60-acre field at the intersection of Leyden Road and Barton Road when he saw the plane descend from the sky in a “corkscrew manner.”

“I thought it was someone fooling around doing acrobatics until it began to nosedive,” Duprey said.

Watching the small plane, Duprey said he was surprised at how loud it was. But when the plane began to fall, he said, it went silent before disappearing from sight.

The Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, state and Greenfield police, and the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office are involved in the investigation.

Someone to look up to

Ballard accomplished a lot in her too-short time in the world of flying, Beede said.

“We all thought she was really a positive influence for women in aviation,” he said.

This was expressed, too, in the Ninety-Nines tribute: “A mentor and confidante to many female pilots in the area, Rika instilled confidence in countless pilots and student pilots with her mantra, ‘You’re only going up from here.’”

Beede noted that flying is an inherently dangerous occupation.

“It’s a community where we take risks,” he said. “We try to be careful, but things happen beyond people’s ability to control.

“We do it because we love it.”

James Pentland can be reached at jpentland@gazettenet.com.