On Wednesday, February 10, a Sheriff’s Deputy and a civilian pilot were killed when the small plane they flew through San Joaquin Valley in California crashed into a mountain. Now, a number of witnesses claim that they saw the plane flying suspiciously low just before the crash and some also saw another plane in the area which may be connected to the tragic accident.
The Visalia Times Delta reports that civilian pilot James Chavez, 45, and Deputy Scott Ballantyne, 52, were flying a “light-weight, fixed-wing aircraft that acts much like a helicopter” low over the mountains near Porterville in Tulare County searching for a man who had been reported brandishing a weapon. There was no distress call before the plane crashed into a hillside and erupted into flames, killing both men.
The pilot of the plane, James Chavez, was reported to have logged more hours flying that particular model of the plane than any other pilot in the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department Aero squadron. Before joining as a civilian pilot, he had been a Black Hawk pilot for the California Army Reserve and a maintenance officer. Ballantyne had joined the aero squadron roughly 18 months ago as an onboard observer and was a 26-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department.
According to local ABC affiliate KFSN, the NTSB and FAA have already concluded their investigation at the crash scene and have handed the site over to the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office. Though no statements have been made about the cause of the crash at this time, a number of local eye witnesses report unusual and even suspicious activity in the sky just before the plane went down.
Les Pinter, an experienced pilot who lives minutes from the investigation command post, says he saw a small, yellow plane flying dangerously low on the evening of the 10th. “It was yellow and I could almost make out the numbers. And I thought, ‘if someone reports this guy’s tail number he’s going to lose his license because you’re not supposed to fly at 300 feet if you’re not on final approach.” Mr. Pinter went on to tell reporters, “The guy was definitely doing something risky. But if he was following the road he would have been here four minutes after we saw him.”
At least four other people report seeing the low yellow plane and some report seeing a second plane in the area. Nita Buck, who also witnessed the incident, told reporters, “I saw this plane come up, and there was another one going in the other direction, and the plane comes down and hits and all you see is smoke and a bunch of fire.”
At this time, no officials have been able to publicly comment on the ongoing investigation into this tragic crash, so it is unknown whether the alleged second plane is being sought.
Any time a plane crash claims lives, it is tragic. However, the community of Visalia and surrounding neighborhoods are now joined in their mourning by thousands of officers of the law who understand the sacrifice these two men made the night their plane went down as they sought to protect innocent citizens from a possible gunman. In some cases, investigations into airplane crashes can help bring victims a sense of closure and may also help bring to justice any negligent parties who may have caused or contributed to the crash. To learn more, please contact our experienced plane crash aviation attorneys for a free consultation.