The man who fell through the sky Friday afternoon had been flying for years.
An employee at the Collegedale Municipal Airport couldn't recall exactly when David Richardson started piloting planes. Six, seven years ago? Another pilot at the airport thought Richardson started flying about 31/2 years ago.
Either way, they said, the man was experienced. On Friday, however, he flew a plane he had just purchased, and he wasn't prepared for what those at the airport described as a freak accident.
As Richardson flew his two-seat plane with an instructor, the canopy opened. About 2,500 feet off the ground, the plane nose-dived, and Richardson fell out.
A search team of about 45 people found his body about 11:45 a.m. Saturday.
The night before, the searchers had found a preflight checklist, torn in half.
Saturday morning, searchers started out from the Maroon Road fire station near the intersection of Weatherly Switch Trail and Lead Mine Valley Road in southern Bradley County. From pinging the cellphone Richardson was carrying, they had an idea where to look.
The found a hat bearing a logo from an airshow.
Then a spotter in an ultralight aircraft told the search team that he saw something worth checking out near the road. The Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department in Collegedale found Richardson's body, which the Bradley County Sheriff's Office handed over to the medical examiner.
A woman answering the door at Richardson's house Saturday evening said the family was not yet prepared to talk to a reporter.
Richardson was retired and used to serve as minister of music at Concord Baptist Church. He still sang in the church's Senior Adult club.
"He was well loved by everyone at Concord," Drew Scott, the church's pastor for worshipping arts, wrote in an email Saturday.
A Collegedale Airport employee who declined to give his name said Richardson often hung out there on Saturdays. The airport doesn't host any commercial flights, just civilians. And those who fly in the area make for a tight-knit community, he said.
For years, Richardson piloted a Cessna 150, a popular two-seat plane. But he recently bought a Zodiac 601 XL, built from a kit by Clarence Andrews, of Signal Mountain. Times Free Press archives show Andrews died in December in a crash about a quarter-mile from the Collegedale airport.
The plane was sold March 18, according to the aviation data website flightaware.com. Even though he was experienced, Richardson had to fly with an instructor Friday because he was not familiar with this plane.
After Richardson fell out, the instructor steadied the plane and landed safely. Rumors have spread concerning what specifically happened leading up to Richardson's fall Friday. Representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board will investigate.
"It's such a tragic thing," one pilot in Collegedale said Saturday. "It's just one of them freak accidents. I've been flying in airplanes 67 years; that's the first time I've heard of anything like that in my life."
Staff writer Judy Walton contributed to this report.
Contact Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476.