Three local pilots died while apparently taking off from the Evans County Airport shortly after noontime on Sunday, June 25, 2023. Bobby Smith of Reidsville, David Hodges of Reidsville, and Mark Dement of Register, GA, crashed in David Hodges’ twin engine Piper Comanche about 2000 feet off the end of the runway in a wooded area.
Gene Long, a pilot and flight instructor, paramedic, fireman, Deputy Director of Liberty County Emergency Management and a member of the Reidsville Airport Authority was one of the first persons on the scene around 5:30 a.m. Monday morning, June 26, and he realized immediately that all three were deceased. Gene was a close friend of both David and Bobby and has worked with them at the Reidsville Airport for many years.
Gene was part of a search party that included Evans County Sheriff’s deputies, Georgia State Patrol troopers and volunteers who searched fields, woodlands and swamps near the Canoochee River to locate the downed aircraft after concerned family members and friends reported them missing. They searched on foot and in vehicles, and Georgia State Patrol pilot Jerry Pimintel brought the GSP helicopter in the early morning hours and tried to locate the aircraft using the FLIR infrared heat seeking system, but heavy rains in the area just before midnight cooled everything down and suppressed any heat signatures from the aircraft or the pilots. Patchy ground fog made visibility poor. Jerry returned to the Reidsville Airport but planned to continue the search at daylight. Searchers on the ground located the wreckage about 5:30 a.m.
Rumors circulated throughout the day Monday, including one that the aircraft had burned. That was not true, according to Gene. “The front of the cabin nose was crushed in, the empennage was wrinkled, but wings were still attached and the engines were intact. For whatever reason, it appears that they had failed to obtain sufficient airspeed to gain altitude, and the aircraft stalled and rolled. I’m guessing that the crash occurred on the first takeoff after they landed. I think they landed, got out of the aircraft, met with Mark briefly, and crawled back in and attempted to take off. The gear was up, the flaps were up, the propeller pitch was at full and the fuel mixture was leaned out some. Normally, it would be full rich, but a little more power can be achieved sometimes in the right conditions by leaning it out a bit, so that leads me to believe they were having trouble gaining altitude and stalled. It was really hot right after noontime on Sunday, and lift is negatively impacted under those conditions. The crash site was very compact. They hit no trees and the crash area was only about 30 feet by 30 feet.
There was no blood as one would normally expect. I think they died of massive internal trauma. They were just sitting in the plane. Bobby and Mark were in the front seats, and David was in the back. Mark was a multi-engine instructor with thousands of hours, and Bobby was getting instructor certification in multi-engine aircraft on Monday. He was preparing for a check ride by an FAA instructor, and he just wanted to go through some maneuvers and let Mark provide tips and suggestions on Sunday afternoon. Bobby and David planned to be back in Reidsville around 2 p.m.
“I searched from midnight to the time the plane was located with Evans County Sheriff’s deputies,” Gene said. “I think deep down I knew what we’d find if we located the plane, but I was hoping. I kept calling their telephones and there was no response. I guess I knew.”
Ms. Jeanette Deloach is the financial officer for the Reidsville Airport Authority. Monday morning, she received the news that David’s missing plane had been located, and he was in it. “I was told someone else was in the plane, and I just knew it was Bobby,” she said. “I kept calling his phone and there was no answer, and I knew that second person had to be Bobby. They flew a lot together.”
Jeanette called members of the Reidsville Airport Authority around 8:00 a.m. Monday morning, and they were in total shock. Bobby and David were pivotal in virtually all operations at the airport. Bobby operates Mid-Coast Aviation and has personally trained dozens of pilots in the last few years. He and David wore many of the hats necessary to keep the airport operating by doing jobs, including cutting grass, repairing roofs, trimming trees at the ends of the runways to maintain proper clearance, helping take care of the old fuel systems and helping get the new fuel systems up and operating. They helped save thousands of dollars in doing so and were a big reason the airport continued to operate and expand during the COVID pandemic.
Hopefully, investigators will be able to determine exactly what happened, but they may not, according to Gene. They’ll look at everything, check the fuel, plugs, settings of switches and flight controls along with aircraft damage and maybe they can come up with a best guess. If someone had survived, it would be much easier. Even if David had survived in the back seat, he could have told investigators what the pilots were saying and what the plane was doing. That way, they’d almost certainly know what went wrong.
David had the fewest flying hours, and both Bobby and Mark were instructors who had thousands of hours of flying time. Mark was an EMS helicopter pilot for Air Methods in Vidalia, Georgia, and had flown hundreds, perhaps thousands of missions to airlift injured or sick patients to hospitals around and outside of Georgia. No doubt, he has helped save hundreds of lives.
Bobby was Chief Instructor/CEO at Mid-Coast Aviation Services, which is based at the Reidsville Municipal Airport. Mid-Coast Aviation was developed as an aviation school to provide single engine fixed wing certification for aspiring pilots and often focused on retired or discharged military helicopter pilots who wanted to get fixed wing certification. It was a small but personal and successful operation that filled a significant need in Southeast Georgia.
David was a retired nuclear energy specialist who worked nuclear plant outages around the Southeast, and he was probably the best of the three at aeronautical theory and design. He’d designed and built two airplanes from scratch, and he taught free classes for youngsters interested in aeronautical design at the airport one or two days per week when local schools were in session. I observed in some of his classes, and he was really good with youngsters. Recently, he’d extended an invitation to my granddaughter who enjoys upper-level mathematics to come out and take part in the completion of the latest aircraft.
“Who knows, Coach,” he said. “She might get interested in aviation and discover a career. If nothing else, she might find new ways to put her math talent to work. It’s a lot more fun when you learn how to use it.”
Last Wednesday, he sent her video recordings that included 13 lessons on calculus, three lessons on trigonometry, two lessons on rocket science, and eight lessons on gyroscopic precession. I’d planned to take her out and let her sit through a couple of sessions with some of his other students when school started to see if she might be interested.
I didn’t know Mark Dement, but everything I’ve learned about him since the accident indicates that he was cut from the same cloth as David and Bobby. He loved flying and seldom passed up an opportunity to get in an aircraft and take off.
If there is anything positive about this heartbreaking tragedy, it is that all three of those good men were doing what they loved. It won’t help much, but we must remember that bad things happen to good people, too.