Investigators seek cause of crash that killed pilot, deputy in Tulare County

Tulare County sheriff’s Deputy Scott Ballantyne, top, and pilot James Chavez died in a single-engine plane crash near Springville on Wednesday.
Tulare County sheriff’s Deputy Scott Ballantyne, top, and pilot James Chavez died in a single-engine plane crash near Springville on Wednesday. Special to The Bee

The call for the Tulare County sheriff’s air-support unit began with a report of a man brandishing a knife and fleeing in a vehicle. It ended in tragedy.

For reasons still unknown, the Flight Design light sport aircraft – made specifically for law enforcement use – crashed into an empty hillside Wednesday near Springville, killing pilot James Chavez, 42, of Hanford and sheriff’s Deputy Scott Ballantyne, 52, of Visalia.

The day after the crash, a National Transportation Safety Board team searched the wreckage for clues, and late Thursday the site was turned over to the Sheriff’s Department. Its personnel will remove the wreckage Friday.

The Sheriff’s Department gave this account of what preceded the crash:

About 3:25 p.m. Wednesday, the department’s dispatchers got a call about a man brandishing a knife in 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 at about 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, the NTSB said.

Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said at a news conference Wednesday night that the airplane came equipped with a parachute that was not deployed.

“It happened so quickly – there was no distress call, no ‘mayday,’ or the deployment of that safety device,” he said.

NTSB investigators will look at the wreckage for signs of mechanical problems, and will examine radar and weather data to try to figure out what happened, said agency spokesman Eric Weiss.

Governor’s sympathies

On Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown sent his condolences to the relatives of the two men.

Brown said he and his wife, Anne, “extend our deepest condolences to the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department and the friends and family members of Deputy Ballantyne and pilot Chavez during this difficult time. We are grateful for these men, who made the ultimate sacrifice doing what they did everyday – serving and protecting their community.”

Flags at the state Capitol were flown at half staff in their honor.

Air patrol

The sheriff’s air unit operates an “Eyes in the Sky” program that uses a light sport aircraft based at the Visalia airport. It’s flown eight hours a day, five days a week.

Looking for suspects from the air is a normal part of the job for the aviation unit, said Dave Williams, a reserve sergeant in charge of the group.

At least two to three times per shift, “we’re looking for somebody,” he said. The airplane that crashed had logged more than 3,000 hours.

The aviation unit started in 2011 and was hailed as an economical way to do aerial surveillance. One of the first successes of the unit was to spot a suspect hiding in an orange grove at night using infrared detection equipment.

The two-seat plane, made of composite materials to keep it light, cost $220,583 and was paid for by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant and $20,616 in seized drug money.

Recalling those killed

Boudreaux met with relatives of the men who were killed and is assisting with making funeral arrangements.

Deputy Tracy Mellow said he and Ballantyne worked together for years as bailiffs before Ballantyne got assigned to the air unit.

“He was bubbly and happy, for the most part,” Mellow said. “When he started talking, you couldn’t get a word in edgewise – in a fun way. He’d take forever getting to the point.”

When Ballantyne got accepted for the air unit in 2014, “he was ecstatic. He was literally glowing. He was smiling from ear to ear,” Mellow said.

He loved the job, Mellow added.

“Being an aviation observer is kind of rare in law enforcement,” he said. “He said if they let him, he’d do it the rest of his career.”

Ballantyne was hired by the department in 1989. He is survived by his mother and sister. He had no children.

Lt. Duane Cornett wore a badge Thursday with a black band over it.

“We’re a very close family,” he said. “This really hits home when its one of our own.”

Wednesday night, the bodies were removed from the crash site and were escorted by coroner’s officials and an honor guard. Law enforcement in Porterville and Tulare blocked intersections to allow passage, he said.

Chavez was hired in 2014 to fly Sheriff One, as the plane was known.

He was a volunteer pilot before that, and served in the Army National Guard full time from 2007 to 2013.

Williams said Chavez loved the job.

“He was the perfect example of a professional pilot,” Williams said. “He was extremely safety-oriented. If he found anything that seemed out of the ordinary, he’d walk across the tarmac and talk to the mechanic.”

He also was devoted family man, Williams said.

“He took time off to do things with his family on a regular basis. He was well-liked, very humble. Anything you needed, he’d help you with.”

Chavez is survived by his wife, 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold