The Tulare County Sheriff’s Department is casting doubt on an eyewitness report that there was another plane near where the Sheriff One spotter aircraft crashed Wednesday, killing two.
The implication is that a midair collision may have caused the crash of the Flight Design light sport aircraft – made specifically for law enforcement use – on an empty hillside near Springville. Pilot James Chavez, 45, of Hanford and sheriff’s Deputy Scott Ballantyne, 52, of Visalia were killed. (Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect age for James Chavez.)
Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said Friday the prevailing view of his aviation experts is that the eyewitness is mistaken.
“Nothing is impossible; it’s likely improbable,” Boudreaux said.
Still, the report will be compared with other eyewitness accounts to try to figure out what went wrong, Boudreaux said. “We’re looking at every angle and every possibility.”
A witness reported seeing “a mysterious yellow plane in the area flying erratically,” Boudreaux said.
We’re looking at every angle and every possibility.
Mike Boudreaux, Tulare County sheriff
However, it’s likely the witness saw the Sheriff’s Department Sheriff One plane before it went down or as it was going down, he said.
“We’re thinking they were looking at our plane,” he said. “It can be yellow-looking from a distance.”
National Transportation Safety Board investigators on Thursday examined the crash site on a hillside east of Porterville and west of Springville, and then turned over the site to the Sheriff’s Department.
Debris was being carted out Friday and that work was to be completed Friday or Saturday. “They are being very meticulous,” Boudreaux said.
The square footage of the crash site, in which the airplane caught fire, is relatively small, he said.
It could take a year before a cause is determined by the NTSB.
The Sheriff’s Department learned of another witness in the area of the nearby River Island Golf Course and has alerted the NTSB, he said.
The Sheriff’s Department is gathering its own evidence, including GPS information, to try to map the path of the airplane before it went down.
“Maybe that will give us clues,” he said.
Investigators also want to know why no distress call from the plane was received.
“We had no mayday,” Boudreaux said. “Did radio communication go out?”
Nor was a parachute deployed. A chute, designed to slow a disabled plane’s descent, was one of the plane’s safety features.
Video of the crash site taken from a helicopter could provide some information, he said.
On Thursday, the Sheriff’s Department gave this account of events that preceded the crash:
About 3:25 p.m. Wednesday, the department’s dispatchers got a call about a man brandishing a knife on the 27500 block of Avenue 146 in East Porterville.
The man got into a vehicle with a woman and they drove away.
Two deputies responded in patrol cars, but the man and woman were gone by the time a deputy got there.
Another deputy found their vehicle and, after a short pursuit, pulled it over and arrested both people 25 minutes after the call came in.
Joshua Williford, 34, was arrested on suspicion of brandishing a weapon and making criminal threats. Sage Emerson, 18, was arrested on charges of evading an officer and resisting arrest.
The deputy was out of radio range, so the airplane was dispatched to help find the car and suspects from the air and to make sure the deputy was safe, sheriff’s spokeswoman Teresa Douglass said.
The airplane was already in the area of Highway 198 and Road 182 and was sent to the area of the car search, she said.
Williford and Emerson were arrested at the end of a road west of Lake Success, not far by air from the crash site. The crash was reported about 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, the NTSB said.
Funeral service for Deputy Scott Ballantyne
DATE: Feb. 22
TIME: 10 a.m.
LOCATION: Visalia First Assembly of God, 3737 S. Akers St.
BURIAL: Graveside services to follow at the Visalia Public Cemetery, 1300 W. Goshen Ave.
Services for sheriff’s pilot James Chavez
DATE: Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016
TIME: 10 a.m.
LOCATION: Glad Tidings Assembly of God Church, 750 E. Grangeville Blvd., Hanford
BURIAL: Graveside services to follow. Location to be announced soon.