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Death Notice Guestbook

Obituary: Patricia Hilliard Robertson / Physician-astronaut killed in crash of experimental plane

Saturday, May 26, 2001

By Joel Rosenblatt, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Patricia Hilliard Robertson, a NASA astronaut and physician from Homer City, Indiana County, died Thursday night from severe burns and other injuries she suffered in a plane crash in Texas.

Dr. Robertson was serving as a support astronaut for crew members presently on board the International Space Station. Family members said she was scheduled to take off on a shuttle mission next year. She was 38.

Dr. Robertson was a passenger in a single-engine experimental plane owned and flown by Roy Mack Paul Adams, 46, when the accident occurred at Wolfe Air Park in Manvel, Texas, about 20 miles south of Houston.

According to a preliminary report by the Federal Aviation Administration, the plane crashed as Adams and Dr. Robertson were practicing touch-and-go landings.

On their fourth take-off, the plane pitched to the right side. The left wing struck the runway, causing the plane to cartwheel down the runway. It struck a patch of trees, where it caught fire, the FAA report said.

Dr. Robertson and Adams were on fire when they emerged from the wreckage. A witness told the Houston Chronicle he used a fire extinguisher to douse the flames on the pair, who were still alert and talking.

Adams, of Alvin, Texas, was in critical condition yesterday at Memorial Hermann Hospital.

In 1995, Dr. Robertson left Erie, where she was working for a family pediatrics practice, to pursue a fellowship in space medicine at the University of Texas and Johnson Space Center in Houston.

In 1998, NASA selected her for astronaut candidate training.

She underwent intensive scientific training, and learned water and wilderness survival techniques. In Houston, Dr. Robertson also met and married Scott Robertson, a pilot. The couple did not have any children.

Dr. Robertson was born and raised in Homer City, but traveled abroad at an early age. Her late father, Harold Hilliard, was in an international construction business.

Some of her early years of her life were spent in Indonesia, where her father met and married Dr. Robertson's mother, Ilsa Hilliard, who still resides in Homer City.

Bernadette Hilliard, 49, of Homer City, Dr. Robertson's cousin and high school English teacher, said Robertson was an ambitious but modest student. She was a popular student at Homer Center High School, where she graduated in 1980.

Hilliard was also Dr. Robertson's cheerleading coach. Hilliard recalled that when the cheerleading squad performed pyramids, Dr. Robertson insisted on supporting the other cheerleaders instead of going up herself.

"She didn't want to go up and that's kind of ironic, because her love was planes," Hilliard said. "She never wanted to go up in cheerleading, but she wanted to fly. After that, she just kept on going higher and higher."

Dr. Robertson was an avid pilot who had accumulated more than 1,500 hours of flight time. She was a multiengine rated flight instructor and also performed aerobatics.

Dr. Robertson earned a bachelor of science degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1985, and a medical degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1989.

"The last time I saw her she said she was going to go up in the space station" in 2002, Hilliard said.

Dr. Robertson is survived by her mother; an older brother, Tim Hilliard of Florida, a pilot for U.S. Airways; and two younger brothers, Scott Hilliard of Greensburg and Keith Hilliard of Indiana, Pa.

The family has planned a private memorial service. Funeral arrangements were pending.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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