Federal agency rules pilot error in fatal 1999 crash

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 11, 2000

After a year and a half, the National Transportation Safety Board has determined that pilot error led to a 1999 crash at Vicksburg Municipal Airport that killed four people.

The final report, issued this week, concluded that the pilot of the four-seat Piper Comanche aircraft failed to obtain and maintain flying speed, which resulted in an engine stall and the craft’s crash. The plane went down in a wooded area north of Warrenton Lane, killing all aboard.

No mechanical problems were discovered during the examination of the wreckage, according to the findings.

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On May 7, Robert Henderson, 40, of Monroe and formerly of Vicksburg; Matthew Chad Strickland, 25, Columbia, La.; Evelyn Kathy Grant Elee, 49, West Monroe; and John D. Bolton, 54, Bastrop, had flown from Bastrop to Vicksburg to spend an evening at a casino.

At about 10:30 that night, the single-engine plane, which was owned by Henderson, took off from the airport on U.S. 61 South to return to Bastrop.

According to the report, an airport employee received a telephone call a few minutes later from a Warrenton Lane resident who said he was awakened by a loud sound. Reportedly, this information was not relayed to the local emergency services.

The following morning, friends of the pilot and passengers began inquiring about the four. Airport personnel called the Warren County Sheriff’s Department, and the airplane was found in a heavily wooded area about 1.1 miles from the runway.

Henderson had purchased the aircraft four days earlier and had logged 4.2 hours of flight time in the plane. No autopsy was performed on Henderson, and a toxicology examination was negative for alcohol and drugs.

The fatal crash occurred as city officials and local businessmen were arguing about closing the 53-year-old airport. Supporters of closing the facility have cited the incident among other safety concerns.

Vicksburg officials voted 2-1 in February 1998 to close the city-owned airport, saying the city would not continue funding two airports. Other reasons given by Mayor Robert Walker and South Ward Alderman Sam Habeeb included using the property for industrial sites.

The dispute over Vicksburg Municipal and its Louisiana counterpart, Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport, erupted into litigation in March 1998. Vicksburg Municipal continues to operate under court order pending appeals now before the Mississippi Supreme Court.

After Circuit Judge Frank Vollor ruled that an airport authority was needed to protect the county and city from liability associated with VTR, both governments appointed boards to oversee airport funding.