The three passengers who died in a Tuesday morning plane crash near Warren County Airport have been identified.
The victims, all members of the military, have been identified as Nolansville resident Lt. Col. Shelli Dawn Huether, 45, Murfreesboro resident Capt. Jessica Naomi Wright, 38, and Murfreesboro resident Sgt. Scott Alan Bumpus, 53.
The three were aboard a four-seater Piper airplane that crashed at 11:30 a.m. in a 50-acre field off Airport Lake Road. The airport runway is visible from the crash site.
Warren County Sheriff Tommy Myers said the Federal Aviation Administration was on the scene Wednesday investigating the crash. Myers said the investigation is still in its early stages but it appears the plane did a touch-and-go landing at the airport and had just taken off.
The plane is registered to Lebanon Flying Club. A veteran local airplane pilot told the Southern Standard on Wednesday that touch-and-go landings are used to practice landing and then taking off without the plane ever coming to a stop.
The veteran pilot said the fact the plane is registered to a flying club and a touch-and-go landing was used Tuesday would suggest an inexperienced pilot was gaining flying hours. In speaking to the Standard, the veteran pilot emphasized his thoughts are pure speculation and he has no role in the official investigation.
He said the first thing crash investigators are going to try to determine is whether there is fuel in both gas tanks and whether the engine was still running at the time of the crash. Since the plane crashed near the runway, it indicates there was a problem during takeoff.
“Fuel management is a common mistake among low-time pilots. The fact the plane did not catch on fire is a really good thing because that means there’s a lot of available evidence to evaluate,” the veteran pilot said.
If the plane ran out of gas or stalled for other reasons during takeoff, the proper procedure is to keep the plane straight, the veteran pilot noted, and to point the nose down. A plane of that size is capable of gliding around two miles at just 1,000 feet above ground.
The thing not to do if the plane stalls is to make a sudden turn. If the plane stalled and a quick turn was made to try and return to the runway it could cause the plane to spin, which would create a situation where there’s no lift on the wings. This could cause the plane to fall straight down like an elevator.
Based on pictures of the crash, the plane looks like it almost did a belly flop, landing squarely on the ground in this type of scenario. The ground around the plane was not disturbed to indicate there was any sort of glide landing for several hundred feet.
“During takeoff, pilots are not thinking about what they’re having for lunch. They should be looking around and constantly monitoring the landscape. You have to be thinking if the motor quits, where am I going to land this thing? You have to push your nose down to get your lift back and you have to fly straight,” the veteran pilot noted.
While it might not seem like the case, altitude is a pilot’s best friend. When a plane is low to the ground, there’s not nearly as much time to recover from a mistake.
According to FlightAware, which tracks flights nationally, the plane took off Tuesday morning in Lebanon at 10:20 a.m. and made an 11-minute flight to Murfreesboro Municipal Airport. It took off in Murfreesboro at 10:53 a.m., according to FlightAware, and was last monitored at 11:18 a.m. near McMinnville.
According to FlightAware, the plane was cruising around 1,800 feet and around 108 mph for most of its trip from Murfreesboro. That altitude is about the lowest that’s advisable to fly, according to the veteran local pilot.
According to FlightAware, that plane had been flown frequently in recent days. It was in the air on Monday and Saturday.
It can take months before airplane crash investigations are complete.