RIPLEY, Miss. (AP) – An airport worker who knew how to take off but not land hijacked a small plane Saturday and threatened to crash it into a Walmart, circling for five hours over worried Mississippi residents before ending up safely the flight over a soybean field. where he was arrested by the police.
Corey Wayne Patterson, 29, was uninjured after the crash landing shortly after he posted a goodbye message to his parents and sister on Facebook, authorities said at a news conference. The message said he “actually never meant to hurt anyone.”
After an anxious morning of watching the plane’s winding path from above, Tupelo Mayor Todd Jordan called the resolution “a best-case scenario.”
No one was injured.
Patterson worked to fuel planes at the Tupelo Regional Airport, giving him access to the twin-engine Beechcraft King Air C90A, Police Chief John Quaka said.
It was not immediately known why, shortly after 5 a.m., the 10-year Tupelo Aviation employee took off with the fully fueled plane. Fifteen minutes later, Patterson called a Lee County 911 dispatcher to say he planned to crash the plane into a Tupelo Walmart, Quaka said. Officers evacuated people from Walmart and a nearby grocery store.
“This is more likely a crime of opportunity,” Quaka said, adding that the airport tower is not staffed until 6am.
Police negotiators were able to make contact during the flight and get Patterson to land, but he didn’t know how. He was flown by a private pilot to a near-landing at the Tupelo airport, but he aborted the attempt at the last minute and continued the flight, authorities said.
A dispatcher reestablished contact around 10 a.m. and learned Patterson had landed in a field and was uninjured, Quaka said. The plane landed near Ripley, Mississippi, about 85 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Memphis, Tennessee, and about 70 kilometers northwest of Tupelo.
“There is damage, but believe it or not, the aircraft is intact,” the chief told reporters.
Patterson, whose Facebook page listed him as being from Shannon, was charged with grand larceny and making terroristic threats. Kuaka said federal authorities could also press charges. Police said Patterson is not believed to be a licensed pilot, but does have some flight instruction.
Jordan said Patterson contacted family members during the flight. The mayor said he hopes Patterson “gets the help he needs.”
“Sorry everyone. I never really wanted to hurt anyone. I love my parents and my sister, it’s not your fault. Goodbye,” read Patterson’s Facebook message posted about 9:30 a.m
Peter Goelz, former chief executive officer at the National Transportation Safety Board, said the vulnerability of small airports, which serve small planes and corporate jets, has worried security experts for years.
“If you have a trained pilot who can go in and grab a business jet, you have a very lethal weapon there,” he said.
Ripley resident Roxanne Ward told The Associated Press she tracked the plane online and went to her father-in-law’s house with plans to go underground for safety. She said she heard the thud as the plane hit the ground on her father-in-law’s property.
She and others boarded four-wheelers to go up.
“As soon as he crashed, the police were there waiting,” said Ward, who was watching from a distance. “The police chased him away. They yelled at him, “Guns in the air.” He said the pilot exited the plane without resisting police.
Michael Kanders, director of the Aviation Center at Farmingdale State College in New York, called the incident “a wake-up call” for general aviation airports and their personnel.
The Transportation Security Administration requires annual training emphasizing a “see something, say something” approach to try to prevent a scenario like what police in Tupelo believe – an employee with access to aircraft, Canders said.
“That’s exactly what’s being discussed along the way, the potential for someone to gain access and intent to harm,” he said. “It depends on everyone who works at an airport. If you see someone you don’t recognize or any unusual activity, you should report it.”
An online flight tracking service showed the plane’s swirling path across the sky early Saturday.
Leslie Criss, a magazine editor who lives in Tupelo, woke up early and tracked the situation on television and social media. Several of her friends were outside watching the plane circle overhead.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in this city,” Criss told the AP. “It’s a scary way to wake up on a Saturday morning.”
Goelz said the FAA and the Department of Homeland Security will likely review the incident and issue guidance focused on enhancing security, a potentially costly prospect.
“For an airport like Tupelo, to turn on security for a Saturday morning at 5 in the morning when their tower doesn’t open until 6 — that’s expensive,” Goelz said. “They’re not going to have the funds unless the feds are going to provide them.”
The plane drama unfolded as tens of thousands of college football fans headed to north Mississippi for Saturday’s football games at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and Mississippi State University in Starkville. Tupelo is located between these two towns.
Jane and Daniel Alsop stood out in their front yard near where the plane landed and saw it circling low over the pines and oaks.
“He left for a while, then we heard him come back. “Just a few seconds later, we heard a big old ‘puff’ and it landed in the soybean field,” said Jane Alsop.
Daniel Alsup said the plane landed on the other side of some trees, so they didn’t see it hit the ground.
“This was the best place that could have happened,” he said of the rural landing site.
Wagster Pettus reported from Jackson, Mississippi. Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo in New York, Kathleen Foody in Chicago and Paul Wiseman in Martinsburg, West Virginia, contributed to this report.