Plane crash site

A Beechcraft B23 Musketeer sits in a field July 4 after crashing about 50 yards from the grass airstrip owned by Walter Mitchell near Vaiden. Mitchell suffered the worst injuries among the four people aboard the plane with a broken right arm, fractured hand and fractured sinuses.

The Federal Aviation Administration investigator looking into the July 4 crash of a single-engine plane near a private airstrip outside Vaiden will check whether the pilot’s medical certification expired more than 17 years ago.

The Beechcraft B23 Musketeer crashed into a field about 50 yards from the end of a grass airstrip owned by the pilot, Walter J. Mitchell, 72. Besides Mitchell, others on board were David Jagson of South Carolina; his 7-year-old son, Evans; and Mitchell’s 7-year-old grandson, Jayden.

Mitchell, who is a Democratic candidate for Carroll County District 5 supervisor, broke his right arm in the crash. He said Friday he also underwent surgery this past week for a fracture in his hand and a fracture of his sinuses caused by the accident.

Jagson, 45, was thrown through the windshield of the plane and landed some 40 feet away. On the ride back home Thursday, he said he was sore and bruised a week after the crash. The two boys were taken to a hospital in Winona but were without serious injury.

The investigator, assigned from the FAA office in Pearl, follows an FAA “Accident/Incident Report” that requires him to examine all aspects of the crash, including the condition of the plane, the weather, the landing area, the pilot’s training and experience, the pilot’s certificate and whether he has passed the airman medical qualifications.

Robert Katz, a commercial pilot with 35 years’ experience who flies for a private company based in Dallas, said he follows news reports of crashes involving recreational pilots and uses the FAA’s database to determine if they have the necessary qualifications to fly.

Katz said it is commonly misunderstood by the public that all that is needed for a pilot to be qualified is a pilot’s certificate or license.

He said it is a two-part license, with pilots required to show they have the proper training and experience to gain their certificate and then prove on a regular basis that they are medically fit to fly.

That was confirmed by Kathleen Bergen, communications manager with the FAA in Atlanta.

“Pilots must have a valid medical certificate to fly,” she stated in an email to the Commonwealth. “They go to FAA trained and approved Aviation Medical Examiners (AME) who submit the results of the medical exams to the FAA. If a pilot has certain medical conditions that might disqualify him/her from receiving a medical certificate, an FAA Flight Surgeon would review the medical and determine if the pilot can receive a ‘special issuance’ certificate.”

According to the FAA website: “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines a medical certificate as ‘acceptable evidence of physical fitness on a form prescribed by the Administrator.’ The primary goal of the airman medical certification program is to protect not only those who would exercise the privileges of a pilot certificate but also air travelers and the general public.”

The FAA requires that pilots carry their medical certification with them when they fly a plane.

Mitchell said, however, he understood that the medical requirement did not apply to pilots such as him.

Walter Mitchell

Walter Mitchell is running for Carroll County District 5 supervisor. This campaign sign, along County Road 31, is not far from Mitchell’s airstrip or the crash site.

“I have a friend who flies corporate, and he said recreational pilots don’t need medical qualifications,” he said. Mitchell said he told the FAA inspector the same thing.

Each pilot’s qualifications and medical certification are available for public inspection on the FAA’s website at faa.gov.

For Walter Joe Mitchell, who lists his address as 427 Belmont Drive, in Bristol, Tennessee,  the website says he was most recently certified in January 2006 as a private pilot with ratings for operating a single-engine airplane over land and flying by following instruments on the plane’s control panel. Mitchell formerly lived in Bristol while he was working as a heavy equipment instructor for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Corps.

The FAA site also says Mitchell has a third-class medical certificate, which is what he needed to operate as a private pilot, that was issued in April 2000. Under the FAA guidelines detailed on their site, for a pilot older than 40, a third-class medical certificate would expire 24 months after it was issued. That would have been in April 2002.

Mitchell said that he “had one since 2000,” referring to an updated medical certificate, but declined to say when that was issued. FAA guidelines would have required a man his age to have had at least nine medical exams since 2000 to keep his certification up to date.

“I’m not going to reveal any more information about it,” Mitchell said, adding that the FAA inspector told him not to talk with the Commonwealth. “You’re just looking for something to publish. And if I don’t reveal it to you, you’re not going to get it. Only the FAA.”

Jagson said Thursday he was sure that Mitchell was fit to fly on the day of the crash, but Mitchell also told the Commonwealth from the hospital the day after the crash that he always checks his blood pressure before flying and felt fine.

Bergen checked with other FAA officials to determine if Mitchell’s information on the FAA website could be outdated.

“Everyone in the database is not an active pilot,” she said. “There are many people listed in the database who do not fly, so they do not need a current medical certificate. If they want to start flying again, they would have to get a new medical certificate and meet retraining requirements.”

Katz said the FAA lays out the requirements but relies on pilots being “on the honor system” to get the proper medical screening, have the certificate filed and follow the rules. Katz said his experience has been that many recreational pilots don’t bother having their medical certificates renewed after the initial filing.

That’s different for pilots such as Katz, who must keep up-to-date medical, experience and training information on file with their employer. In the Delta, the same would be required of pilots operating commercial ventures such as crop-dusting planes.

And while the FAA may not have enough people to check on more than 600,000 certified pilots in the country, if the inspector determines after the fact that a pilot was operating without the proper medical certification when his plane crashed, he could face heavy fines, sometimes in excess of $10,000, and have his flying privileges permanently revoked, Katz said. If a crash involves a fatality, an unlicensed pilot could face prison time, he said.

More trouble can come from the insurance company that covers the pilot and the plane. Lack of proper credentials could invalidate the policy and leave the pilot to bear any costs himself.

An aviation insurance executive told the Commonwealth that insurance companies in general require pilots to uphold everything the FAA requires.

If the pilot does not, for instance by letting medical certification expire, it can invalidate the policy.

The FAA report should be available in a couple of weeks.

Contact Gavin Maliska at 581-7235 or gmaliska@gwcommonwealth.com.

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