Herbie Brewer, an attorney for businessman Ray Whitworth, said Friday evening that his client was heartbroken over the tragedy that cost the lives of three promising young men, but wanted to be very clear that no one, including the teenagers, had permission to use the plane.
Brewer said Whitworth was contacted Tuesday night after his plane was determined to be missing. Calls to 911 reporting a plane crash had drawn investigators to the airport. Whitworth drove to the scene to confirm that his plane was missing and that he had not approved anyone taking the plane.
“One of the airport officials contacted Mr. Whitworth to ascertain if he was in his own plane,” Brewer said. “They found out that Mr. Whitworth was here, in Walker County, at home and his plane was gone.”
The plane was missing from its parking spot, which was not in one of the airport’s locked hangars, but rather under an open hangar meant to protect the plane from the elements. There were trucks parked near the hangar, and when investigators ran the plates, they realized that one of the boys was Jordan Smith, a student pilot, and the search for the crash site continued.
Once the wreckage was found, investigators confirmed that it was Whitworth’s plane located in the heavily-wooded area off Alabama Highway 5 and Wells Loop Road, just a mile from the airport. The bodies of Smith, 17, and two of his friends, Jordan Montgomery, 17, and Brandon Ary, 19, were also recovered at the scene.
The plane, a Piper PA-30, also called a Piper Twin Comanche, is a low-wing plane with two propellers. Brewer said the Twin Comanche is a difficult plane to handle, even for someone who is experienced with twin-engine planes. He also said that reports that Smith had a key to the plane are inaccurate, because this model does not require a key to start the engines.
Smith’s mother, Sherrie Smith, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that her son was one test away from receiving his pilot’s license and that he regularly flew the Piper in question and had the owner’s permission to fly it.
Brewer said that he believes accounts from the victims family that the young man did fly out of the airport frequently, but not with Whitworth or on Whitworth’s plane. He also said that the plane’s Hobbs meter, which measures operating time, shows that there are no hours unaccounted for on the plane.
Brewer said Smith, who obtained a student pilot license in early 2012, did not have the proper license to fly with passengers or to fly a twin-engine.
Other media outlets have reported that the registration on the plane was not current, which Brewer said was true. He said that Whitworth had purchased the plane and began repairing and updating the plane but had not updated the registration.
The plane is legally owned by Whitworth’s limited liability corporation, HiFlight Aviation. Brewer also said his client rarely used the plane, instead using a second plane that he keeps nearby.
“This plane was not a frequently-flown airplane,” Brewer said. “And the reason it wasn’t, was that it was purchased from another individual, and, although it had been brought up to full flight capabilities and ready, it was not being flown very much because it was in the process of being registered to a corporation. That registration process was not completed.”
Brewer said Whitworth has already supplied the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board with all the records he has for the plane, including maintenance records, which is a standard part of any accident investigation.