A routine small plane flight took was a bizarre and seemingly inexplicable turn in the skies of North Carolina last month when Charles Crooks, the 23-year-old co-pilot, apparently jumped out of the craft while it was in the air. The remaining pilot landed the plane safely but has yet to comment on what exactly happened until this week when a newly released report began to fill in the gaps. But questions still remain. Read on to learn what we know so far about the accident.
According to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), before he jumped, Crooks became noticeably distressed after damaging the craft’s landing gear during a failed runaway approach. The plane’s pilot-in-command said that Crooks “became visibly upset about the hard landing” soon after they diverted to another airport.
According to the report, the pilots had flown two skydiving runs out of Raeford West Airport in a 10-seater CASA C-212 Aviocar. With Crooks at the controls, they were descending toward the airport to pick up the third group when the aircraft dropped. The right main landing gear impacted the runway and sustained damage.
The pilot retook control of the plane, directing Crooks to declare an emergency and request a diversion to Raleigh-Durham International Airport for landing.
About 20 minutes into the diversion to RDU, Crooks stopped communicating with air traffic controllers, the report said. He opened his side cockpit window at 3,500 feet and “may have gotten sick.”
Crooks then lowered the ramp in the back of the airplane, saying he felt ill and needed air, “got up from his seat, removed his headset, apologized, and departed the airplane via the aft ramp door,” the report said.
Crooks was not wearing a parachute. His body was found in a backyard in the town of Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina after a local couple called police upon hearing a loud thump outside their home.
The remaining pilot, whose name has not been released, suffered minor injuries. He was taken to Duke Hospital and released. He has not yet commented on what happened.
Earlier this month, the Daily Mail reported on a 911 call two air traffic controllers made about the incident. They told a dispatcher that a damaged plane was heading to the airport and that the pilot said his co-pilot had jumped out of the aircraft in midair.
“We have a pilot that was inbound to the field,” a controller told the 911 dispatcher. “His co-pilot jumped out of the aircraft. He made impact to the ground and here are the coordinates.”
“All we can do is recovery at this point,” FAA personnel said. “I mean, I don’t know. I’ve never heard … this is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Hew Crooks, the father of the 23-year-old, told WRAL that flying was his son’s “lifelong dream,” that he had obtained his private pilot’s license in college, and that he had worked as a flight instructor for at least a year.
He couldn’t explain what might have happened to his son. “I don’t know,” he said. “We can’t process it right now. I don’t know.”
The father added: “He said a couple weeks ago, he wouldn’t trade places with anybody in the world. He loved where he was.”
He said the loss of his son was devastating. “We’re a strong family and we’re a very loving family. But this, it leaves a hole,” he said.
Charles Crooks’ obituary stated that “Aviation was Charlie’s overriding passion practically from birth … He read every flight book he could get his hands on, and was known occasionally to wear one on his head for transcranial absorption of knowledge. As a young teenager he built an actual flight simulator and developed a love for flying remote control planes.”
It noted that last April, Crooks had accepted his “dream job as a First Officer with Rampart Aviation, a specialist contractor primarily conducting support operations for the Department of Defense.”
“Avoid speculation on his final moments, which are so much less important than the nearly 24 years of joy and wonder that he brought to everyone he met,” Crawford Crooks, the pilot’s brother, said in a Facebook message to the Raleigh News & Observer.