Leroy Burnell // The Post and Courier
This aerial view of the Berkeley County Airport shows the wooded area (left) where Kenneth Tollett’s plane crashed.
MONCKS CORNER -- Kenneth Tollett evidently tried to crawl away from the wreckage. His private plane had gone over the airport fence and into trees alongside the runway. He could have survived, maybe. But what needed to happen didn't.
Tollett, 64, wouldn't be found for two weeks. The Moncks Corner man was found 50 feet from the wreck, and it appeared that he tried to go for help. The Oct. 13 crash at the Berkeley County Airport, and the delay searching for him, were the consequences of too many things going wrong.
He wasn't found sooner because he didn't tell anyone that he planned to fly. He had a tendency to go off by himself, so no one immediately became alarmed. But there's more.
Like a lot of private pilots, he wasn't required to file a flight plan, or even check in with the airport. The emergency equipment designed to back pilots up isn't always reliable. And pilots who are supposed to listen for it often don't.
Tollett flew in an air space plagued by old radio emergency equipment giving off so many false signals that the Air Force no longer monitors the frequency. A lot of private pilots don't tune in unless requested. The $5,000 to $6,000 cost of upgrading to more closely monitored satellite equipment discourages a lot of pilots.
The airport where Tollett berthed his plane isn't heavily used, particularly on weekdays like the day he flew. Only one other aircraft, a helicopter, used it that day.
"When you're flying from a small airport that has no control tower, you have to tell someone. If you have nothing in place to alert someone, you have problems," said Bob Worthington, president of the U.S. Pilots Association.
The circumstances stacked the odds.
"Had someone gotten to him within a few hours, he could have been saved. We don't know," said Emerson Smith, spokesman for the Civil Air Patrol's South Carolina wing. "There's just a lot of things that went wrong."
'Like false alarms'
Accidents involving private pilots at smaller airports happen almost every day. On Friday, the National Transportation Safety Board aviation accident report for October had more than 50 incidents listed nationwide, and the Tollett report had not been listed yet.
The NTSB has investigated at least 20 incidents, including Tollett's, since 2000 at or near Berkeley County, Summerville, Mount Pleasant and St. George airports. Nearly half have been fatal.
What happened to Tollett, though, was "a very isolated incident," Worthington said. Most times, people see or hear the crash, an emergency signal sounds and is picked up, or someone who has been informed of flight plans reports that somebody is overdue.
If an emergency signal sounds, though, mounting a search still takes time. The person picking up the signal makes a report to the nearest control tower, which must confirm that a craft is missing, then notify the Civil Air Patrol, law enforcement and the Federal Aviation Authority to start the search.
Even with the satellite signals, it can take three hours to launch a search; the controllers must allow the satellite to make a few passes to confirm the signal.
That's because the signals can lie. They are designed to sound when the plane crashes. But the older ones tend to go off even during a hard landing. They can be set off while someone is working on the plane in the hangar. They can be set off being thrown away in the trash.
Because the Air Force last year quit listening for the signals, a pilot flying from a small regional airport must rely on an uncertain network of other pilots to catch the signal and report it.
Tollett's signal sounded, apparently. Smith, of the S.C. Civil Air Patrol wing, said he heard reports from people in the area that a signal was heard that day. But apparently nobody reported it. That's not unusual. Along the coast, boats also can be equipped with the devices.
"There's so many of them going off, it's like false alarms," Smith said. So a lot of private pilots no longer tune to the frequency unless requested by a tower. The same misguided self-reliance that leads pilots to take off without filing a flight plan can keep them from tuning in. "So many pilots believe in 'freedom of pilots' that many don't even have radios," Smith said.
It's a rule of thumb among private pilots that they check their emergency signals after landing to make sure their signals didn't sound, and to check for other signals, Smith said. He and Worthington were clear: If the signal did sound and someone heard, it should have been reported.
"If that signal was going off and nobody picked it up and nobody called it in, that's really terrible," Smith said.
Touch and go
From the air, the spot where Tollett's plane crashed into dense woods can't be seen. It can't be seen from the airport office either. The plane hit several trees before stopping well into the woods. He might as well have vanished.
He wasn't reported missing to the Berkeley County's Sheriff's Office until his fiancee, Jan Heaton, and family became alarmed that they had not heard from him. Heaton and Tollett had a longstanding relationship and were accustomed to going their own way for days at a time. It wasn't unusual for him to fly off for weeks at a time.
"At first Jan didn't think much of it," said Rachel Tollett, Tollett's daughter. "He loved to fly. He loved to explore. He loved to go different places. Sometimes he'd go off by himself."
He was on his way to the airport that Thursday afternoon when Jan last saw him, but he was just stopping by on his way somewhere else. He apparently decided to do a few "touch and go" landing practices, telling no one. He was reported missing on Oct. 22 and discovered the next Thursday.
The family's report was handled originally as a missing-person case, a search for where he went. Once a search for the plane was launched, Rachel Tollett said, the Sheriff's Office and other agencies involved did all they could. "It took two weeks to find him because we did not realize he was gone," she said.
It was heart-wrenching for her to hear that the body was discovered about 50 feet from the plane.
Taking off from a small airport is like trekking off into the wilderness from a trail head, Worthington said. There's just not much backup in place unless the trekker tells somebody. The small field aviation community understands the risks, but there is a sense of being "bullet-proof" among some pilots.
"Are you afraid to walk across the street? You're not afraid because you don't think it will happen to you," Worthington said.
Had Tollett filed a flight plan, Smith said, he might have been found. "There would have been a search," he said. But too many small airport pilots "just go to the hangar, pull the airplane out and leave," Smith said.
Measures are being put in place. More small airports now are installing webcams to track takeoffs and landings. Partly because of the Tollett tragedy, the S.C. Civil Air Patrol is mounting a campaign to get pilots to monitor the emergency frequency more closely, and a push to install the satellite devices, Smith said.
He recalls a plane crash near Camden where he picked up the signal only because he carried a handheld receiver. He recruited a sheriff's deputy and rescued three badly injured people.
"There needs to be a lot more attention paid to that in the aviation community, he said.
Tollett's family is burying him today, after a funeral service in Dunlap, Tenn.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at @bopete.
Earlier fatal accidents at or near Lowcountry airports since 2000.
Moncks Corner (Berkeley County Airport)
Summerville (Summerville Airport)
Mount Pleasant (Mount Pleasant Regional Airport)