Pilot threatened suicide before plane crash in Spotsylvania
BY PAMELA GOULD / THE FREE LANCE-STAR
James Stover was in a Cessna 172 with a student pilot flying back to Shannon Airport shortly before 6:30 p.m Monday when he spotted an identical plane taking off.
He had heard nothing on the radio from the other pilot beforehand, which was odd, he said, since pilots warn of what they’re doing near airports.
Stover, owner of JLS Aviation Flight School, then called out to the pilot over the radio but got no response.
“At that point, I knew something was profoundly wrong,” Stover said.
He took the controls of his Cessna from his student to change course to evade the other plane.
When it looked like the other plane had left the area, Stover let his student land their plane. They were safely on the runway and had turned around their aircraft when the other plane suddenly crashed—apparently intentionally.
Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Pearce said dispatchers got calls about someone threatening suicide, shortly before the crash.
Deputies were on scene before it happened and fire and rescue units were en route when the single-engine aircraft with a 40-gallon fuel capacity burst into flames. Wreckage stretched from the hayfield on Slaughter Pen Farm, onto the runway and across to the other side.
Stover said he realized the other plane crashed when he saw the flames off to his right.
Only one person was aboard the four-seat plane that crashed, Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.
She withheld the man’s identity as of press time as police sought to notify his nearest relatives. People on the scene said he had lived in the Fredericksburg area.
A woman witnesses described as the man’s fiancée was at the airport before the crash and for hours afterward speaking to police.
Virginia State Police were heading the investigation into the crash. The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Administration were also notified.
The last fatal crash near Shannon Airport occurred in September 2012.
Two Stafford County residents, a 48-year-old FBI employee and his 13-year-old son, were killed Sept. 29, 2012, when their single-engine Cessna crashed shortly after takeoff from Shannon. The plane crashed into the River Heights mobile-home park, located just across Tidewater Trail from the airport runway. No one on the ground was injured, and no homes were damaged.
A preliminary report said the plane nosedived “following an in-flight loss of control during initial climb from Shannon Airport.”
The cause of that crash remains unclear. The NTSB has not issued its final report. Those reports can take 12 to 18 months to complete.
According to The Free Lance–Star’s archives, the 2012 accident was the first fatality at Shannon Airport since 2006, when William Mitchell Strother crashed his single-seat plane into an adjacent field. Although there have been several other crashes at the airport since 1990, the next-most-recent fatality was a skydiving accident in 1980.
WITNESSES TO TRAGEDY
Charlie, a Spotsylvania resident and recent graduate of Liberty University who did not want his full name used, arrived at the airport for his evening flight lesson about 6:25 p.m. Monday.
He saw the Cessna flying erratically and, like Stover, immediately knew something was wrong.
He hopes to become a Marine aviator and realized that career could put him face-to-face with death but never expected to see it so soon.
He couldn’t find sufficient words for what he witnessed.
Stover leased the plane that crashed to the pilot. He said the aircraft had recently been overhauled and everything was working properly.
He said it was checked out before the man took it for a flight.
He said the pilot called earlier that evening to reserve the plane for a flight.
The man had gotten his pilot’s license last year and had flown out of Shannon before, Stover said.
“There was nothing abnormal about the checkout or anything prior to that that led us to believe there was anything suspicious,” Stover said.
But Monday evening, witnesses saw that pilot “buzz the runway” and make other erratic moves.
When Stover found himself on an “intersecting course” with the plane, he knew there was trouble.
“That’s when I said something is terribly wrong.”
Within minutes, he’d witnessed the tragedy.
“It’s never good to watch somebody die,” he said.
It was even harder knowing it was someone from within the small community of pilots.
He estimated that only about 20 percent of people who seek to become a pilot succeed.
Why Monday’s tragedy happened, he couldn’t say.
All he knew was “it’s heartbreaking.”
—Editor Betty Hayden Snider contributed to this report.
Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972