Investigators have begun their examination of the wreckage of a fatal Beechcraft Bonanza crash in Chesterfield, Missouri, that killed pilot Jim Smith. The accident happened on Wednesday, December 6, as the plane was traveling to Spirit of St. Louis Airport from Deer Valley Airport in Phoenix, Arizona. Although the investigation into the small plane crash is only beginning, reports have emerged that the pilot knew he wouldn’t make it to the airport. Some witnesses have called him a hero for crashing the plane where he did, preventing further loss of life.
72-Year-Old Pilot Killed in Beechcraft Bonanza Crash
The sole fatality was 72-year-old Jim Smith, a developer who was an experienced pilot before the crash. As the plane approached Spirit of St. Louis Airport at around 3:00 p.m., the Beechcraft Bonanza B36 hit the canopy of a BP station near Long Road and Chesterfield Airport Road. The plane then crashed into the gas station’s parking lot.
According to reports, Smith knew he wasn’t going to make it to the airport, telling air traffic control he experienced a loss of power in the plane. He was the only person on the plane.
Audio released from before the plane crash share Smith’s final words, “I’m losing my power…I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
Some of the people in the area told reporters that although the aircraft was flying low, they couldn’t hear an engine. One witness said that anyone who wasn’t looking at the sky wouldn’t have known a plane was headed for them.
Witnesses rushed to the plane to try to help Smith, but the fire prevented them from getting to him.
“We couldn’t get the flames out,” an unnamed witness told KMOV. “It was out of control and someone was trying to hit the windshield with a hammer and it was bouncing right off. There was nothing we could do.”
Mary Flynn was one of the people at the gas station where the plane crashed. She told St. Louis Today that people tried to put the fire out with fire extinguishers, which pushed the flames back for a few seconds. Once the fire extinguishers were depleted, however, the flames started up again, with smoke so thick it was difficult to see.
The plane reportedly landed only 10 feet from a woman at a fuel pump. She was not injured but was shaken up. Meanwhile, everyone at the gas station was fortunate the plane didn’t crash into a nearby tanker truck.
“You feel gratitude no one else was hurt and then great sadness for the poor pilot that didn’t survive,” Flynn said.
Pilot had Extensive Flight Experience
Friends and relatives said Smith was an experienced pilot, who had talked about emergency landings. One family member told KMOV that Smith likely chose to attempt to land the plane where there would be the least risk to people on the ground.
Aaron Sauer, who is the lead National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator in this crash, said Smith likely saved lives by trying to land the plane where he did.
“As far as being able to put the aircraft down like he did, a tremendous job on his part,” Sauer said.
Sauer also noted that as of 2016, Smith had more than 3,400 flight hours under his belt. His plane was built in 2001.
Friends and former colleagues remembered Smith as a good man who saved a local plaza and was a pleasure to work with.
“He was one of the finest men I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing,” said Jeanne Venn, who worked for Smith at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel.
Smith was from St. Louis and led a group that revitalized the Chase Park Plaza, which had been closed for almost 10 years before it was renovated.
“Years ago, when we were first starting out, I didn’t have a car. I had a sick newborn at the time,” said Diane Hoffner-Guenther, a friend of Smith’s. “[Smith] heard that, had us to his house, and sold us his station wagon for one dollar.”
Family Thanks Those Who Tried to Save Pilot in Small Plane Crash
Though heartbroken over the loss of their loved one, Smith’s family and friends took the time to thank the people who tried to save Smith during the crash’s aftermath.
“Anybody that steps forward in a time of need, especially when they’re putting themselves at risk, they’re heroes,” said Richard Fredman, one of Smith’s friends.
NTSB and FAA are Investigating Missouri Plane Crash
Both the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are investigating the crash. Although the fire destroyed the cockpit, most of the engine compartment is intact. Investigators will be aided by bystanders who took photos of the plane and the fire.
“Even though the aircraft did sustain quite a bit of fire damage, we did get a lot of first-hand photograph imagery come in, as far as where the fire was contained to, where did it spread to,” Sauer said.
Investigators note it could take anywhere from six to nine months to determine an official cause for the crash. They will explore all possibilities, including mechanical failure. The wreckage will be taken to a location in Tennessee for an in-depth investigation.