An investigation continues in the wooded area near Shuqualak where two Columbus Air Force Base planes crashed to the ground early Wednesday afternoon.
The two T-6 Texan II trainer planes, which each held one instructor pilot and one student pilot, collided at 12:47 p.m. while conducting traffic pattern training at the base’s auxiliary airfield in Shuqualak.
The names of the pilots involved have not yet been released, though base officials hinted their identities would be made public by this afternoon.
All four pilots ejected and parachuted safely, where they were transported to the base for medical examinations, though early reports indicated none of the pilots were seriously injured.
With the pilots recovered and largely unharmed, the base turned its attention to managing the crash sites.The first site, about one mile north of Mahorner Road, is a treeless alley of tall brush about 40 feet wide sandwiched between woods on both sides.
Marcus Anderson, who owns the farmland near the first site, said he saw one of the planes coming down after he looked skyward to discern the cause of a loud crashing sound just before 1 p.m. Wednesday.
I heard something, and I looked up over the tree line, said Anderson.
He saw a plane, he said, turning quickly into a fireball as it neared the ground.
There was fire coming out the back end of it. The next thing, it just exploded, and I thought, Oh, Lord, I’m dead.’ … I’ve never seen such an explosion. It just shook the ground.
Anderson and his son, Marc, saw the pilots eject before the fireball hit the ground and found two of them - one of whom got his parachute tangled in a treetop and had to wait for far-reaching fire truck ladders to pull him down, said Anderson.
Around 3 p.m. the following afternoon, the scene was far more tranquil. A survey team combed the site, placing orange flags at points where parts and pieces of equipment debris lay scattered. As the team gestured southward, the gentle drone of insects and the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot were the only audible sounds, with little left but ground scars to remind onlookers of the violence of the crash that had occurred there only a day earlier.
Several dozen yards away, nestled just inside the eastern tree line, a junked ejector seat rested on the ground, mangled from impact and half-hidden by fallen branches.
The seats, which base officials had warned contain active rockets used for ejection, were all recovered Thursday.
The second crash site, reachable only by foot, said base officials, is two miles further into the woods, a mess of scarred trees and parts scattered and concealed amidst the dense foliage.
It will take several days to recover all the parts, said Sonic Johnson, chief of Public Affairs for CAFB.
After the Jan. 18 crash of a CAFB trainer aircraft near Batesville, he noted, the plane was on the ground for five days before the initial investigation team was able to inventory all the parts, find the ejection seats and accurately map out the area where the parts were located.
With two planes involved, the recovery and mapping process will likely take even more time.
At both sites, security remains tight, with Air Force security officers controlling a site entry point off Mahorner Road and patrolling the crash sites with M-16 rifles.
The sanctity of the sites, explained a base official, is crucial to expediting the investigation process.
With the sites mapped and the parts recovered, an Air Force investigation board will attempt to recreate the particulars of the Wednesday collision and determine what caused the accident.
Concrete answers, though, may take many long weeks to come to light. Specifics from the Batesville crash were released about two months after the incident.
Until more information becomes public, base officials are satisfied none of the pilots were seriously injured during the accident.
The next steps for CAFB are to find the cause of the collision, piece the facts of the incident back together from scrap and do what can be done to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
My uncle saw the planes explode in the air and fall to the ground with the pilots in parachutes on the way down. He said, “I looked up and saw a giant fireball and the planes falling with the pilots ejecting.” They still haven’t realesed any information on the case.