Two people were killed Tuesday night when their plane crashed in a bean field on Sherrell Road in the Jacksboro community.
“It sounded like a 500-pound bomb going off,” said James Ledbetter who heard the explosion from his nearby home. “He throttled it, then let off and throttled it again.”
Law enforcement officials have positively identified the victims as Tommy Stiles of McMinnville and flight instructor Larry Barnes of Spencer. The Piper Saratoga in which they were flying was registered to A.W. Stiles Construction.
Calls began flooding into 911 just before 7 p.m. Tuesday after area residents reported hearing the plane fly over, throttle up and then down before hearing a loud explosion.
“I did not see it actually hit the ground since I was a field over, but we were standing on the back porch and we heard the engine sputtering and cutting in and out,” said eyewitness Shelby Hillis. “You could see the plane going up and down, really unsteady, but he was obviously trying to get it steady. Not even two minutes later it was nose diving straight toward the ground and the whole sky lit up orange and I called 911.”
She added, “It was so sad knowing we could do nothing to help.”
Witness descriptions tend to confirm telemetry captured by aviation monitoring which shows a large fluctuation in engine speed and altitude over the last few minutes of the flight as the plane got as low as 1,800 feet before ascending to 4,500 feet four minutes before the fatal plummet. The last two minutes of telemetry data show the plane picking up speed and losing altitude before it disappeared from the radar.
When first-responders arrived at the location off Sherrell Road, they found the burning wreckage in the middle of a muddy soybean field and a two-foot-deep crater a few feet from where the remains of the aircraft were burning.
Both occupants were dead at the scene. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were on hand Wednesday conducting their probe.
“We will be taking the aircraft back to a secure facility to continue our investigation once we are through investigating and photographing the scene,” said Heidi Moats, air safety investigator with the NTSB, noting a preliminary report regarding the accident will be available in about 10 days.
The doomed flight took off from Monroeville, Ala., at 4:24 p.m. and was supposed to arrive at Warren County Memorial Airport at 6:19 p.m., according to its flight plan. The two sidestepped a large thunderstorm in central Alabama on their way north.
However, the plane flew into more rainy conditions as it neared Warren County from the south.
Sometime around 6:30 p.m. the aircraft scrapped its approach to Warren County Memorial Airport and radioed it wanted to try a landing at Upper Cumberland Airport near Sparta. Flight experts say Upper Cumberland has better equipment for an approach using instruments.
Visibility was practically zero around the time of the crash with rain and a ceiling less than 500 feet, meaning they would have to approach any landing from a cloud bank without benefit of visual cues.
The flight data revealed the aircraft, minutes before its crash, did a U-turn somewhere near Warren County Airport. It appears the U-turn was north of the airport, meaning the plane had passed it.
“That’s indicative of disorientation,” said Robert Kapz, a licensed pilot who investigates causes of aircraft crashes for a safety watchdog group, noting the telemetry data showing erratic moves in the last minute of the flight supports the theory the aircraft may have become lost in the dark sky.
Kapz pointed out Stiles held a private pilot’s license earned in March of this year and would not be permitted to fly under such conditions while Barnes was a licensed instructor and, while the conditions were poor for flying, would be allowed to operate the aircraft. It is not known who was in control of the aircraft at the time of the crash.
The crash happened about four miles southwest of Warren County Airport just as the plane made a turn to the north. It is not known if their plan in the final moments was to try another approach to Warren County Airport or head to Sparta.