By Jack Gurner
OAKLAND – A Tennessee pilot may owe his life to a patch of Mississippi kudzu.
Cass Choate of Oakland, Tenn., was seriously injured Wednesday, July 8, when his single-engine aircraft crashed into a kudzu-covered wooded area about three-quarters of a mile east of I-55 and about 300 feet south of Hwy. 32.
Eyewitnesses said Choate, an aerobatics pilot, had just finished some aerial maneuvers when the engine of his Pitts S2B developed problems, made a noise like a back-fire twice, and blew two puffs of blue smoke.
One of the witnesses was Rodney Lancaster, a friend of Choates and owner of the property where the crash occurred. “He was just doing his stunts and I guess he was getting ready to leave and was going to pass over,” he said.
Lancaster said he saw the smoke come out of the engine and watched as the plane dived into the trees. The time, according to his cell phone, was 12:06.
Lancaster, his wife Michelle, and a few others were watching from outside the old Mike’s Body Shop where the Lancasters are setting up business. “Thank God for kudzu,” Michelle said, “That’s what saved his life. If he had gone down on the ground without it, it would have killed him.”
Frank Hyde agreed and said it probably cushioned his landing. Hyde is the Director of the Yalobusha Emergency Management Agency. He and other emergency responders were called out and on their way to the scene by 12:15.
“We didn’t know what we had,” he said of the initial 911 calls reporting a plane crash. Responders weren’t sure if it was a small private airplane or an airliner until they arrived on the scene.
While the kudzu may have helped break his fall, it also made it difficult for Choate’s plane to be found.
“We tried to get over here as quick as we could. It took a while to find him in this thick stuff,” said William Teeter of San Antonio, Texas, also an eyewitness who was vacationing in the area.
Rescuers had to hack their way into the jungle-like tangle. “As thick as it is in all directions, it was a monster to get in here,” said Teeter.
Choate’s plane was found resting at the bottom of what looked like a bowl of vines and trees. He was conscious and reportedly asked how long he had been there.
A hose snaked down the path into the bowl from one of the county fire trucks. It was a reminder of the 20-plus gallons of highly flammable aviation fuel still in the aircraft’s tank.
Emergency medical technicians began treatment while volunteer firefighters worked to remove the broken fuselage from around the pilot. Over the noise, the voice of a medic could be heard calling out Choate’s vital statistics for a bystander to write down.
By 12:59 the rescuers had Choate out of the aircraft and were carrying him toward the waiting medical helicopter that had landed in a field nearby.
Eyewitness Teeter, who had helped free Choate, stood by the almost unrecognizable aircraft and described the last moments of the flight. “His motor just sputtered, stalled and in he came,” he said. “As hard as he hit I did not expect him to be in as good of shape as he is.”
Meanwhile medics were working to stabilize Choate for transport by air to the Regional Medical Center in Memphis. He was taken to the helicopter at 1:19 and it took off at 1:24 p.m.
Choate is being treated for multiple serious injuries, including severe breaks to his right leg and a broken left ankle. He also had cuts on his face and head.
Choate had flown to the Batesville airport where his friend, Lancaster, picked him up and they drove to Oakland on business. Lancaster drove him back to Batesville on Wednesday.
He refueled before leaving Batesville, according to Panola County Airport Manager Randy Turman. Choate was returning to Millington airport where the plane is kept. Pitts S2B aircraft are valued at between $80,000 and $120,000, according to an aerobatics website on the Internet.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were at the site Wednesday afternoon and will issue a report on their findings later.
From an email received by the Herald:
Please keep Cass in your hearts and prayers we are expecting a slow but full recovery, our family wants to give thanks to the men and women of Yalobusha County Mississippi and all the people who helped in his rescue.
Chris Choate (uncle to Cass)