CONWAY — The very last known thing pilot James Major did was save the WoodCreek at Conway community from what could have been a much worse day on Aug. 3.
A mere 25 minutes in the air since takeoff from Conway-Horry County Airport to look at a helicopter Major wanted to purchase, witnesses believe the 39-year-old Conway man experienced problems with his Beech D55 twin engine plane on that partly cloudy afternoon and did “everything he could” to avoid hitting homes in the subdivision filled with families and children.
Steve Hilling is the one neighbor who said he saw the complete dissention of the plane and provided eyewitness accounts for the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board as officials worked to complete an accident reconstruction report.
Hilling was on his back pool deck working on his grill when he heard a plane coming over and he thought it was pilot Al Allen because he always flies low for crop dusting and mosquito spraying. When he heard the plane coming, it sounded lower than usual.
“It was the worst sound I’ve ever heard,” Hilling said.
“When I looked up, he was coming in and he banked real hard, and you could hear the engine sputtering and cutting out. The plane was almost sideways and the nose was down. And the next thing you know, you hear the engine go full power, and when the plane was [sideways], he straightened it out. It looked like he tried to climb over the trees. But as he went up, the plane went, just like that, straight down.
“After I saw it pass my house, it looked like it was going toward Courtney and Erin [Burge’s] house. And, at the last minute, it looked like he was trying to bank and that’s when the left wing caught the power line and spun the plane all the way around. When he hit the power line, the plane caught on fire in mid air then it just fell straight down. By the time I saw all of that, we were already out here running and I got to the corner there and you could see the plane explode. And there was no movement. Me, [another neighbor] and Erin were all right there with fire extinguishers and water hoses trying to put the fire out. It was just so hot though. You just couldn’t get as close as you wanted to.”
Federal authorities released their preliminary report last week into the crash that noted that no flight plan was filed for the personal flight and no weather conditions were involved. The crash occurred about two miles from the airport and all flight control equipment were accounted for at the scene, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report. Officials also removed a handheld GPS receiver, two smart phones, an iPad mini and a Garmin GTN 750 from the wreckage.
Officials previously said it will be six to nine months before a factual report and up to a year before a probable cause and final report to be completed in the crash.
Major and student-pilot Kenneth James Piuma, 42, Myrtle Beach, were the two known occupants of the plane. As word spread at the scene where family was gathering that first responders were identifying three dead, all wondered who the third occupant was on the plane.
‘A tremendous personality’
The third person on the plane was Donnie Dale Becker, 16, a rising sophomore at St. James High School. He was a free spirit who loved school and always had a smile on his face, said Vann Pennell, principal at St. James High School.
“There’s nothing but pleasant memories,” Pennell said describing Becker, who enjoyed being outdoors. “He had a tremendous personality. He was concerned about others and he loved his family and friends.”
Pennell remembered when Becker arrived at the school as a freshman and watched him mature during his first year.
“He was starting to set goals for himself. He was trying to figure those things out,” Pennell said.
Becker had played football at St. James Middle School and enjoyed mud bogging, according to posts by friends and family on Facebook. The teen also had been building a car motor with some friends, Pennell said.
“He was a kid who enjoyed being around his friends,” Pennell said. “If he got something on his mind he would get fired up about it. He was not bashful. He searched out answers when he couldn’t figure things out.”
‘He was trying to get out of this neighborhood’
Courtney Burge was working on a shelving unit for the family’s living room in the garage of their home on Warm Springs Lane. It was a nice day Aug. 3, so she had the garage door open. Her children, 5-year-old Wyatt and 3-year-old Will, were playing with the children on the lot next door at the corner of Dunn Short Cut Road and Warm Springs Lane.
The Burge family knows the neighbors rather well as children from both homes would swap from house to house and driveway to driveway to draw with sidewalk chalk and ride on children’s toy bikes. On this day, shortly before 1 p.m., the children were inside, which was unusual because of how nice the weather was, Courtney’s husband Erin said.
Erin Burge, a college professor at CCU, was working on his computer in the family’s kitchen area.
“The first thing that sounded wrong was we heard a really loud engine sound,” he said. “It sounded like a car going down Dunn Short Cut going 150 mph, and then that engine sound was followed by, almost instantly, a huge crash and a big explosion.”
Erin Burge ran out the front door into the neighbor’s house – grabbed the kids and the neighbor’s kids and went out the back door, placed the kids over the fence and brought them into Burge’s house, which was farther from the flames.
“We were afraid it was going to explode again,” he said. “At the time, when I ran by, all I saw was a fireball. I didn’t know what it was.”
The plane landed directly on the pillar that welcomed people in the WoodCreek at Conway subdivision. The nose of the plane was facing inward into the community and the tail of the plane was hoisted in the air. Smoke was billowing from the burning debris of the plane. A propeller skipped along the sidewalk of the subdivision, landing four feet from a resident’s truck but causing no more damage than divots in grass and concrete. A four-foot wall of flames followed the fuel down the sloped street’s water gutters.
“It was really clear that nobody survived,” Burge said. “The front end of the plane was like a bomb had gone off. It was just pieces.”
Neighbors grabbed water hoses, fire extinguishers and buckets of water to try and douse the plane, but to no avail.
“From there it was just kind of a zoo,” Burge said. “People from throughout the neighborhood began making their way to the crash scene.”
Pieces of aluminum, looking like ripped apart pieces of can, remained in the neighborhood days after the crash. Burge keeps it in case the investigators need it. Singed bushes, a fuel-stained roadway and a tar-like smell lingered at the crash scene just one week after the blaze.
“I don’t know if the pilot was trying to put the plane down where he did, we think that he did, because there was really no where else he could have put that plane down without landing on a house,” Burge said. “Given how violent the accident was, nobody on the ground, property or people, were hurt. We just choose to believe the pilot put the plane down where he could. Thankfully, for all of us, he put it in the right place.”
Hilling, the neighbor investigators have relied on for the full account of the crash, still finds it hard to fathom that no one on the ground was hurt.
“Erin and Courtney’s kids are always outside, with sidewalk chalk, always out there playing,” he said. “It was just by the grace of God they weren’t out there, because even if the plane didn’t kill them, the explosion could have very well.”
He commends the final actions of Major.
“He tried,” Hilling said. “I really believe when he was coming across here, he knew there’s no way he was going to recover. I think, when he finally gave it all full power, he was trying to get out of this neighborhood. I believe that... I saw it coming at me. I don’t know how he did it, but he did it. He got out of here.”
Major: ‘... pretty sharp as far as mechanically.’
James Major would spend hours washing, polishing and shining his Beech D55 twin engine. He spent more time at the airport than the average private plane owner, said agriculture pilot Al Allen.
“James was a fairly new pilot compared to professional pilots,” Allen said. “He probably had a little over a year experience.”
Major’s father, also named James, said at the scene of the crash that his son had flown all over the world, including a home the family owned in the Bahamas. Allen knew him simply in passing.
“He seemed to be a very nice, helpful guy,” Allen said. “He seemed to be pretty sharp as far as mechanically.”
Major held a private pilot certification that was reissued May 24 with ratings for single-engine and multi-engine planes as well as instrument airplanes, according to records with the Federal Aviation Administration. Major owned LowCountry Machine, LLC, a domestic full-service machining company, doing business as Major Machine Inc.
This was the second known plane Major bought in the last 24 months, the first being a single-engine Piper plane.
Major was known as a “good stick pilot” by Joe Hiott, a flight instructor with Sea Coast Aviation who Major went to for his instrument training.
“He was a great guy and a really good pilot,” Hiott said. “He was just naturally a good stick pilot.”
Hiott said Major’s hand-eye coordination when flying was especially strong and came naturally to him. So when news traveled that Major’s plane crashed, it was a shock.
“It was a very big surprise for me to hear,” he said. “I wouldn’t have expected that in a million years.”
Hiott said being an instructor, he needs to get a general sense of a beginner pilot’s motivation and intentions when flying and he fully trusted Major’s capabilities.
“He wanted to learn as much as he could,” he said.
Hiott sold his plane in March and needed to make a trip across the state. Major loaned him his Piper to make the trip easier.
“He would do anything for you,” Hiott said. “If you needed something and he had it, you could use it.”
Always on their mind
WoodCreek at Conway has always been a pretty friendly community and is a mix of retirees, young families, renters and homeowners. So when a tragedy of this magnitude hits home, it changes the community.
“I think about the families of the pilot and passengers and I think about my own family and how hard it must be to lose a loved one like that so suddenly,” Erin Burge said. His oldest, 5-year-old Wyatt, heard the huge noise, ran to the front window of the neighbor’s house and saw flames. Will, Burge’s 3-year-old, sometimes talks about planes crashing and shape his arms like he’s flying a plane.
“We haven’t really said anything to him because we sort of want him to process it on his own,” Erin Burge said. “They have mentioned it a lot. Hopefully he won’t remember it when he’s older. We know Wyatt will. To them, I think it was really a pretty big deal. It was a big deal to all of us.”
Though the Burges have not had trouble sleeping, the realization of what might have been can’t seem to get out of Erin Burge’s mind.
“If the plane had been 40 feet, or as my wife would say 20 feet, closer, we could have lost the boys,” he said. “I think that was most upsetting for me. A little bit different and it could have been a totally different story for our family. When you go out there and you look at where the plane ended up and where the houses are relative to the plane, that’s like the only place he could have gone. For us, we were thankful that’s where he ended up.”
Hilling, on the other hand, has had nightmares, trouble sleeping and replays the images constantly.
“It was a horrible thing,” Hilling said. “I keep re-living it every day. Every day when I walk outside and I hear a plane, the first thing I do is I look up.”
He can’t help but want to reach out for the families, especially Major’s family, and talk to them to let them know their son did everything he could to survive, save the passengers and save the WoodCreek at Conway community.
“The thing that bothers me is what was going through their minds at the last moment,” Hilling said. “I sit here and think about it every day.”
He has a special affinity for 16-year-old Becker, who was experiencing his first flight in a personal plane.
“The kid hasn’t even lived his life,” Hilling said. “I saw the last moments of his life. That’s something I didn’t want to see.”
Hilling said he doesn’t like being at home anymore. When he walks out on his back porch, he re-lives Aug. 3 all over again. He was supposed to fly to Key West in September, but not anymore.
“After seeing what I saw, no thank you. I will not be flying anytime soon,” he said. “One day, maybe, but not anytime soon.”
If there is any light that can be shone on such a tragedy, it’s that the WoodCreek community has grown closer together.
“It’s a huge difference,” Hilling said of the neighborhood’s new attitude. “Now when people drive by, you used to wave at them and some would turn their head. Now they’re like ‘Hey.’”
Burge has noticed the same thing.
“If anything, it’s probably made our neighbors more friendly,” he said. “Not that people weren’t before. We met neighbors we hadn’t met before from around the corner.”
Still, both Burge and Hilling agree that the community could have done without the loss of three loved ones to bring WoodCreek at Conway closer together.
“It’s not the kind of thing you think is ever going to happen to have a plane crash so close to your house, even closer to where your kids were playing,” Burge said. “It does make you think a little bit differently after you have something like that happen.”
The Sun News reporter Tonya Root contributed to this report.
Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or follow him at Twitter.com/TSN_jrodriguez.