A small plane crash that occurred in Missoula, Mont., this week is now being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Missoula County Sherriff’s Office (MSCO) due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding the crash.
“We have a team that is investigating. They should have arrived on the scene today. They are going to be looking at the wreckage. They’re going to be looking at the engines,” Terry Williams, a spokesman for the NTSB, told AL.com. “They’re going to be looking at pilot records and maintenance records, those are the very standard parts of an investigation … So we’re just gathering the facts at this point.”
The plane was in the air about 10 minutes before it crashed and burst into flames. At first, nobody was sure who the pilot was or where the plane was headed. A spokeswoman with the MSCO confirmed the pilot’s name and intent:
“The Missoula County Coroner has identified the pilot from yesterday’s crash at Missoula International Airport as 52-year-old Patrick Carter of Monroeville, Ala.,” spokeswoman Brenda Basset said. “Carter had stopped in Missoula to get fuel, but was traveling from Washington State back home to Alabama.”
Carter was the husband of Tonja Carter, a longtime friend and protege of Alice Lee, the sister of Harper Lee, famous author of the classic American novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Alice Lee, herself an attorney, encouraged Ms. Carter’s interest in pursuing a career in the law, and later brought her into her firm, which is now known as Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter, LLC. Tonja Carter is now a key attorney for Harper Lee, for whom she has durable power of attorney. Ms. Carter was a central figure in the publication of Harper Lee’s long-lost manuscript, a companion piece to the classic “Mockingbird,” titled “Go Set a Watchman.” The new book was published this year among some controversy about the author’s intentions for the manuscript.
The bi-plane in the crash had only one engine and seat, but plane enthusiast Stan Cohen, director of the Museum of Mountain Flying in Missoula, believes that the plane type may have played part in why the crash occurred:
“It is wood and steel and fabric, and you crash and it is going to catch on fire,” Cohen said. “It is a very fragile airplane.”
While in the airport’s parking lot, Missoula resident Jeff Schmerker says he caught a glimpse of the crash, but realized immediately that it was too late to save the pilot. He identified Carter’s plane as “a 1920s-style, maybe a replica, yellow biplane.”
“It seemed like a World War I-era plane. It took off going almost straight up – that’s what caught my attention – and it was making a really loud, abnormally loud noise when it took off,” Schmerker said. “Then it turned sharply over the terminal or the parking lot area, and then the engine stopped and it fell almost straight down and crashed on a concrete space.”
Although statistics show that mechanical failures cause up to 22 percent of aviation crashes, aircraft manufacturing defects, flawed aircraft design, inadequate warning systems, and inadequate instructions for safe use of the aircraft’s equipment or systems have also contributed to numerous aviation crashes. When situations such as these occur, the pilot may follow every procedure correctly but still be unable to avert disaster.
Patrick Carter worked as a private pilot, usually flying out of the Monroe County Airport. He served on the Board of Directors for the Monroe County Heritage Museum. He and his wife Tonja owned and operated the popular “Prop & Gavel” restaurant in Monroeville. The establishment’s name combined his love of flying (propeller) and hers of the law. The couple married in 1990 and have four children.