RIPLEY, Mississippi (AP) — An airport worker who knew how to take off but not land stole a small plane on Saturday and threatened to crash it into a Walmart, circling for five hours above pissed off Mississippians before ending the flight. theft safely in a soybean field where the police arrested him.
Cory Wayne Patterson, 29, was uninjured after the hard landing shortly after posting a farewell message to his parents and sister on Facebook, authorities said at a news conference. The post said he “never really meant to hurt anyone.”
After an anxious morning watching the plane’s winding path overhead, Tupelo Mayor Todd Jordan called the resolution “a best-case scenario.”
No one was hurt.
Patterson was employed to refuel planes at Tupelo Regional Airport, giving him access to the twin-engine Beechcraft King Air C90A, police chief John Quaka said.
It was not immediately clear why, shortly after 5 a.m., the 10-year-old Tupelo Aviation employee took off in 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 convenience store.
“It’s more likely a crime of opportunity,” Quaka said, adding that the airport tower isn’t occupied until 6 a.m.
Police negotiators were able to make contact during the flight and convince Patterson to land, but he didn’t know how. He was coached by a private pilot to nearly land at Tupelo airport, but he aborted the attempt at the last minute and resumed the flight, authorities said.
A negotiator restored 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 45 miles (70 kilometers) northwest of Tupelo.
“There is damage, but believe it or not, the plane is intact,” the chief told reporters.
Patterson, whose Facebook page said he was from Shannon, was charged with robbery and threatening terrorism. Quaka said federal authorities could also bring charges. Police said Patterson was not believed to be a licensed pilot, but had some flying instruction.
Jordan said Patterson contacted family members during the flight. The mayor said he hoped Patterson “gets the help he needs.”
“Sorry everyone. I never meant to hurt anyone. I love my parents and my sister, it’s not your fault. Goodbye,” read Patterson’s Facebook post posted around 9:30 a.m.
Peter Goelz, former chief executive of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the vulnerability of small airports, which handle small planes and business jets, has worried security experts for years.
“If you have a trained pilot who can climb and catch a corporate jet, you have a pretty lethal weapon there,” he said.
Ripley resident Roxanne Ward told The Associated Press that she tracked the plane online and went to her stepfather’s house with the intention of going to the basement for some security reasons. She said she heard the thud when the plane hit the ground on her father-in-law’s property.
She and others rode on four-wheeled vehicles to cross.
“As soon as it crashed, the police were there and waiting,” said Ward, who was watching from a distance. “The police took him out. They yelled at him, ‘Guns up.’ She said the pilot got out of the plane without resisting the police.
Michael Canders, 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 staff.
The Transportation Security Administration requires annual training emphasizing a “see something, say something” approach to try to prevent a scenario like what police believe happened in Tupelo — an employee with access to an airplane , Canders said.
“That very thing is discussed in the course, the potential for someone to access and intend to cause harm,” he said. “It depends on everyone who works at an airport. If you see someone you don’t recognize or unusual activity, you are expected to 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 watched the situation on TV and social media. Several of his friends were outside watching the plane circle overhead.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in this town,” Criss told AP. “It’s a scary way to wake up on a Saturday morning.”
Goelz said the FAA and Department of Homeland Security would likely review the incident and issue guidance focused on tightening security, a potentially costly prospect.
“For an airport like Tupelo, for them to increase security Saturday morning at 5 a.m. when their tower doesn’t open until 6 a.m., that’s expensive,” Goelz said. “They won’t have the funds unless the federal government provides them.”
The plane drama unfolded as tens of thousands of college football fans headed north from the Mississippi for Saturday football games at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and Mississippi State University in Starkville. Tupelo is between these two cities.
Jane and Daniel Alsup stood in their front yard near where the plane landed and watched it circle low above the pines and oaks.
“He left for a while, then we heard him come back. Just a few seconds later we heard a loud ‘jester’ and it landed in the soybean field,” said Jane Alsup.
Daniel Alsup said the plane landed on the other side of some trees, so they didn’t see it hit the ground.
“It was the best place it 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.
Emily Wagster Pettus and Nikki Boertman, Associated Press