Airport worker charged after threat to crash stolen plane in Mississippi, police say

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An airport worker with only basic flying skills allegedly stole a small airplane and flew it over north Mississippi for five hours Saturday after threatening to crash it into a Walmart, eventually landing in a soybean field where police arrested him.

The 29-year-old airport worker was uninjured after the rough landing, authorities said at a news conference.

After an anxious morning of watching the plane’s meandering path overhead, Tupelo Mayor Todd Jordan called the resolution “the best case scenario.”

No one was injured.

The worker was employed fuelling planes at the Tupelo Regional Airport, giving him access to the Beechcraft King Air C90A, police Chief John Quaka said.

The plane that had flown over north Mississippi for five hours on Saturday eventually crash landed in a soybean field near Ripley, Miss. (Nikki Boertman/The Associated Press)

It was not immediately known why, shortly after 5 a.m. local time, the 10-year Tupelo Aviation employee took off in the fully fuelled plane. Fifteen minutes later, the man called a Lee County 911 dispatcher to say he planned to crash the plane into a Tupelo Walmart, Quaka said.

Police negotiators were able to make contact during the flight and convince the man to land, but he didn’t know how. He was coached by a private pilot into nearly landing at the Tupelo airport but he aborted the attempt at the last minute and resumed the flight, authorities said.

A negotiator re-established contact around 10 a.m., and learned the man had landed in a field and was uninjured, Quaka said. The plane landed near Ripley, Miss., about about 140 kilometres southeast of Memphis and about 70 kilometres northwest of Tupelo.

“There’s damage but believe it or not, the aircraft is intact,” the chief told reporters.

Authorities said man taken into custody was charged with grand larceny and making terroristic threats. Police said he’s not believed to be a licensed pilot but has some flight instruction.

A long-time worry for security experts

Michael Canders, director of the Aviation Center at Farmingdale State College in New York, called the incident “a wake-up call” for general aviation airports and their staff.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration requires annual training emphasizing a “see something, say something” approach to try and prevent a scenario like what police believe occurred in Tupelo — an employee with access to aircraft, Canders said.

“This very thing is discussed in the course, the potential for somebody gaining access and intent on damage,” he said. “It’s dependent on all of those who work at an airport. If you see someone you don’t recognize or some unusual activity, you’re supposed to report that.”

Aircraft meandering in the sky

An online flight tracking service showed the plane meandering in the sky for several hours and following a looping path.

Leslie Criss, a magazine editor who lives in Tupelo, woke up early and was watching the situation on TV and social media. Several of her friends were outside watching the plane circle overhead.

An airplane that police say was stolen is seen circling over Tupelo, Miss., on Saturday. (Rachel McWilliams/The Associated Press)

“I’ve never seen anything like this in this town,” Criss told The Associated Press. “It’s a scary way to wake up on a Saturday morning.”

The airplane drama unfolded as tens of thousands of college football fans were headed to north Mississippi for Saturday football games at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and Mississippi State University in Starkville. Tupelo is between those two cities.

Jane and Daniel Alsup stood out in their front yard near where the plane landed and watched it circle low over the pine and oak trees.

“He left for a while, then we heard him come back. Just a few seconds later, we heard a big old ‘flump’ and he landed out in the soybean field,” Jane Alsup said.

Daniel Alsup said the plane landed on the other side of some trees, so they did not see it hit the ground.

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