Pilot in fatal Murray County crash not trained for intense storms, according to records

Pilot in fatal Murray County crash not trained for intense storms, according to records

July 4th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

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The only person with a pilot's license on the plane that crashed in North Georgia on Saturday afternoon was not trained to fly in storms.

According to a Federal Aviation Association database, 55-year-old Dexter Lee Gresham did not have an instrument rating, a qualification that signifies hours of training in heavy winds, heavy rain and low visibility. Gresham was also overdue for a medical evaluation.

Gresham was in a twin-engine, 1966 Piper PA-23-250 Aztec when the plane burst open in mid-air above Murray County, Ga., at 4:44 p.m. Saturday. A thunderstorm wrecked havoc in the region around that time. Gresham was on board with 61-year-old Mary Jo Yarbrough and her 10-year-old grandchildren, Austin Day and Kinsley Wilson. All four died in the crash.

The crash occurred near Piney Hill Road in Ramhurst, a rural, unincorporated community.

The events leading to the crash are under investigation by members of the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB will release a preliminary report in about 10 days. Investigators with the FAA are assisting in the case and typically focus on whether a pilot disobeyed any regulations.

According to the FAA, Yarbrough has owned the plane since 2013. But she does not have a pilot's license — only Gresham does. Both lived in Etowah, and they stored the plane at the McMinn County Airport, a spokesperson for the airport said Monday.

The group left Auburn, Ala., Saturday en route to somewhere in Tennessee, according to the NTSB. The agency did not disclose the exact destination, though Murray County would have been in the path between Auburn and the McMinn County Airport.

Murray County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Brian Ingle said Gresham filed a flight plan in Athens, Tenn., on June 26, five days before the crash. According to that itinerary, he was going to fly from McMinn County to Mobile, Ala., last week. But a spokesman for the Mobile Airport Authority did not have record of Yarbrough's plane touching down or leaving.

With twin engines, the Aztec is powerful for a private plane. It can go higher, faster and longer than some smaller varieties. This one was also 51 years old, according to the FAA. Plus, a large storm proves to be a challenge to any plane, with powerful winds gusting to and fro.

An instrument rating is key to handling tough situations for a pilot. To obtain the license, you have to train for 40 hours, flying with an instructor. To understand how to handle dangerous storms, you are trained to fly by looking strictly at the instrument panel on board, focusing on your speed and altitude.

According to the FAA, Gresham had not had a medical evaluation since May 2015. That put him at two months overdue for another evaluation, based on federal regulations. All pilots are supposed to check in with an Aviation Medical Examiner, a doctor who can look at whether any realistic concerns exist for a pilot.

For example, the doctor is supposed to note any developing problems with vision or hearing, as well as other health concerns like high blood pressure.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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