By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
Scroll to the bottom or click here to see a map of airplane accidents in Mississippi/Emily Le Coz.
TUPELO – Aberdeen resident John Lee Wilson and his two passengers boarded a single-engine Bonanza aircraft in Hattiesburg on a clear Friday morning, Nov. 21, 2003, and took off toward Okolona.
Wilson, an experienced pilot with more than 3,500 hours in the cockpit, was returning from a football game the previous evening between the University of Southern Mississippi and Texas Christian University. With him were the 22-year-old son and 46-year-old sister of Hattiesburg attorney and family friend Don Medley.
The first hour of the flight passed without incident. But as he approached his business, Wren Body Works, the 59-year-old pilot started flying dangerously low.
Employees who witnessed the aircraft say Wilson buzzed the building, then flew north and turned around to come back. He crossed over U.S. 45 and buzzed the building again before clipping the top of some trees and losing control of the plane.
It went into a tailspin and crashed in an open area near the business, skidding some 100 feet before bursting into flames. Wilson, George Medley and Sarah Andrews all died from massive head trauma.
“The pilot’s intentional low altitude maneuver and buzzing result(ed) in collision with trees, uncontrolled descent, and in-flight collision with terrain,” according to the play-by-play accident report published by the National Transportation Safety Board, which also cited as a crash factor “the pilot’s ostentatious display.”
The incident is one of 29 aircraft accidents – five of them fatal – that have occurred in Northeast Mississippi, and one of 169 statewide, since January 2002. Ten people died in those wrecks; 61 lost their lives statewide.
These aren’t unusual numbers. Aircraft accidents – usually involving small, private planes – occur almost daily across the nation. Smaller states like Delaware witnessed as little as two dozen in the past decade, while larger ones like California have seen hundreds.
Human error usually is to blame, according to Tupelo Regional Airport Executive Director Josh Abramson.
“Flying an aircraft is probably one of the safest means of transportation, with the caveat that it’s one of the most unforgiving for mistakes,” said Abramson, also a pilot. “If you don’t put enough gas in car, you pull over on the side of the road. If don’t put enough in an airplane, you’re forced to land. Or if you don’t pay attention to the weather, you’re in trouble.”
The NTSB blamed human error on more than four of every five Northeast Mississippi aircraft accidents whose causes have been determined. Mechanical problems caused just four incidents. Four others, including the July 8 crash near New Site that claimed three lives, remain under investigation.
Northeast Mississippi has the state’s second-highest number of air-related accidents and second-highest number of fatalities in the past decade, according to NTSB data.
Ten people died in five of the 29 accidents.
The sprawling Delta region claims the most accidents with 39, but the third-most fatalities. Eight deaths out of five crashes.
Jackson’s populous metro area saw the most fatalities. Thirteen people died in six of its 25 aircraft accidents in the past decade.
The Gulf Coast had 21 accidents during the same time period. Two were fatal, and two people died.
View Mississippi Aircraft Accidents (2002-2012) in a larger map