Two pilots spraying insecticide in an effort to kill mosquitoes that spread West Nile virus died early Saturday after their Piper Aztec twin-engine plane clipped a communications tower and plummeted into a Polk County orange grove.
Harold Miller, 53, of Sandwich, Ill., and David Wilkes, 55, of Cleveland, Miss., crashed just before dawn as they dusted groves and foliage with Dibrom -- commonly used to kill adult mosquitoes and larvae -- near Lewis Griffin Road and State Road 60 south of Lake Wales.
A Florida agriculture official said the state has suspended aerial mosquito-control operations until more is learned about the crash and a review of safety procedures is completed.
State officials do not know whether the communications tower had warning lights.
Liz Compton, a spokeswoman for Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, said that before spraying in the dark, pilots typically fly their routes in daylight to spot hazards such as electrical lines, and note them on their flight plans.
"All of this stuff is on maps and charts," she said. "We don't know exactly why the crash happened."
Compton said the plane was carrying about 25 gallons of Dibrom as well as 60 gallons of fuel when it crashed about 5:30 a.m.
A hazardous-materials squad responded and deputies roped off an area around the crash site.
The plane took off from Bartow Municipal Airport about 4 a.m. on its fifth trip of the night, Polk County sheriff's officials said.
One wing clipped the tower, separated from the airplane and fell to the ground near the tower with other debris.
"There's not a fear of contamination in the nearby area," said Michal Shanley, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office.
"It's not considered an inhalation danger, and the site will be cleaned up."
Wilkes, the primary pilot, was employed by Vector Disease Control Inc. of Greenville, Miss., working under contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as FEMA.
Hurricanes Charley and Frances have cultivated fertile ground for mosquitoes -- females lay their eggs on the surface of stagnant water.
Polk and Osceola counties had expected to share four federally funded planes to reduce the mosquito population, and the threat of illness, after Charley and Frances.
The storms have increased the population to such an extent that state traps were catching up to 80,000 mosquitoes each per night.
Since January 2003, eight Floridians have died from West Nile virus.
Compton said the varieties of mosquitoes most likely to carry the virus are active at night, which is why the two pilots were flying so early.
"These guys are out there trying to protect people," Compton said.
"It's an absolute tragedy."
Melissa Harris can be reachedat email@example.com 407-420-6269.
2 pilots die in plane crash
Piper Aztec goes down during FEMA mission to spray insecticide in Polk County
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