Saratoga County

Plane crash kills developer

A small plane carrying two people crashed Wednesday morning in a front yard off Van Vranken Road in

A small plane carrying two people crashed Wednesday morning in a front yard off Van Vranken Road in Clifton Park, killing a prominent local developer and critically injuring the pilot, who was a business colleague.

The plane went down about 7:30 a.m., minutes after taking off from Albany International Airport en route to Plattsburgh, state police said.

Killed was passenger Walter Uccellini, 67, of Albany, chairman of the Troy-based United Group of Companies. The pilot was identified as James Quinn, 68, of Westerlo, who was United’s vice chairman.

Quinn was in critical condition at Albany Medical Center Hospital Wednesday afternoon, police said. Federal Aviation Administration records show Quinn as a certified airline transport pilot. His current certification was issued in February 2009.

The United Group of Companies develops and manages property around the region and state. United served as the developer for the soon-to-open Schenectady County Community College dormitory project. Uccellini worked closely with college and development officials on the project and was expected to be on hand at a ceremony next month to mark the completion.

“It’s a huge loss,” Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen said Wednesday. “He was a great leader for the Capital Region, a great developer. He knew how to get a big project financed and built.”

The owner of the plane, who was not on board, was identified as David Leckonby of West Sand Lake. The plane was a single-engine 1981 Beechcraft A36TC; its most recent certificate was issued in May 2010 and wasn’t to expire until April 2014.

The plane took off from the airport at 7:25 a.m., state police said. Four minutes later, Quinn radioed back to the tower to report engine failure, state police Capt. John McCarthy said.

“The tower asked if he wanted to return to the airport, he said no, he would attempt to land in the direction he was heading,” McCarthy said. “That was the last they heard from him.”

The plane came down in some trees in front of 53 Van Vranken Road. The wings sheared off and the fuselage of the plane skidded across the yard, coming to rest near two trees. The plane appeared to skid parallel to Van Vranken Road. Police speculated Quinn may have tried for a landing on the road but couldn’t make it.

Van Vranken Road was blocked off for much of the morning as rescue crews worked and officials investigated. Officials were waiting for investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, protecting the scene until they arrived, McCarthy said.

The plane was not expected to be removed until late Wednesday at the earliest, McCarthy said. Town officials did not expect Van Vranken Road to open to regular traffic until sometime today, but residents could get to their homes.

Inside the home at 53 Van Vranken Road when the plane crashed were Jeanne Hoffman and her husband of 34 years, Howard.

Jeanne Hoffman said the two were in bed working on a crossword puzzle when she heard something that sounded like two cars colliding, not a plane crash.

When she asked her husband if he heard it, he had not. When she went to investigate she saw the plane.

When she first saw the pilot, he was moving. She yelled back to her husband. He dialed 911.

“I guess I thought I wish those people would get here really fast,” she said. “I told my husband to tell them to hurry, because he’s still alive, but he’s in tough shape.”

Soon she discovered the passenger, who showed no signs of life.

Of how close the plane came to hitting the house, Hoffman called it “just unbelievable, but we’re just so lucky.”

She also noted her neighbors, whose home appeared to be spared when two trees blocked the plane’s path on the ground, were not home at the time.

“We were all very, very fortunate, except the poor man on the passenger side,” she said.

Down Van Vranken Road, Bruce Hoffman first heard of the crash from his father Howard.

Bruce Hoffman said he heard larger planes pass overhead that morning, something that wasn’t unusual. But he then heard a smaller plane pass.

“I thought it sounded funny,” Bruce Hoffman said. “I didn’t think another thing of it until 15 minutes later, I got a call from my dad.”

At United Group, officials said it was “a truly stunning and sad day.”

“We have lost our father, brother, husband, grandfather, uncle, friend, partner and leader,” they said in a statement. “Walter Uccellini was a giant of the world, a truly inspirational figure that we will always love and remember with great fondness.”

“We are a solid team at United Group and will find a way to carry on,” the statement continued. “But today we mourn the loss of a great, great man.”

As for the company’s vice chairman, the statement said, “Please send thoughts and prayers for Jim Quinn and his entire family. We are all praying he fights through this.”

It was unclear why the two men were headed to Plattsburgh, but included in the company’s management portfolio, according to its website, are the College Suites at Plattsburgh. The Plattsburgh suites are apparently similar to the ones about to open at SCCC, a 264-bed dormitory project called College Suits at Washington Square.

The four-story, 112,000-square-foot Schenectady dorm project is SCCC’s first and one that had been in the works, or at least talked about, for a decade.

SCCC Board of Trustees Chairwoman Denise Murphy McGraw described Uccellini’s and United Group’s involvement in the dorm project simply: “It wouldn’t have happened without Walter Uccellini and United Group,” she said.

McGraw recalled that many different developers talked about the project over the years. But when McGraw and college president Quintin Bullock met with Uccellini, McGraw said, she knew immediately he was the right person. As the project got under way, McGraw met with Uccellini many times. She said her thoughts and prayers, along with those of the college, are with the Uccellini family.

“He had a tremendous amount of energy,” McGraw recalled. “I will always remember he had a wonderful smile that lit up a room.”

Metroplex’s Gillen recalled from his interactions with Uccellini a serious man, but also one who enjoyed a laugh.

“He just had a tremendous way about him,” Gillen said.

Quinn joined United in 1996 and is responsible for the executive direction of company development and financing projects, new acquisitions and development of new products, according to the company. In addition to being a pilot, he is also an attorney, certified public accountant and licensed real estate broker.

As chairman, Uccellini was responsible for directing United and its affiliated companies in financing, acquisition, and management of income-producing real estate, according to the company.

Near the crash site, Mike Gerard was out walking his dog with his wife Wednesday morning. When he heard what happened, he said it was something his wife has worried about.

The area of Clifton Park is in a takeoff and landing route to the Albany airport. Several planes could be seen from Van Vranken and Crescent taking off from the direction of the airport.

“My wife’s always been nervous about it. We’re in the landing and takeoff pattern,” Gerard said. “It’s something that she’s been worried about. I don’t worry about things until they happen.”

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