By Scott Boyd
It could take months for the investigation to determine what caused an Oklahoma businessman to crash his airplane near Mashulaville last Thursday, but there’s little doubt bad weather contributed to the accident.
E.R. “Tracy” Shirley, an Oklahoma business executive, was killed in the crash about 5 p.m. last Thursday. He was traveling alone in a six-seater Beechcraft Bonanza A36, headed to Norman, Okla., from Clearwater, Fla. The plane belonged to Harrison Gypsum Company of Norman, a company owned by his brother-in-law. Shirley, 53, had worked for the company since 1999 and currently served as chief financial officer and vice-president. The company mines gypsum for use in concrete mix. He had been in Florida since Wednesday on a business-related trip.
Noxubee County authorities were alerted shortly after 5 p.m. last Thursday by Chris Allen Clark and his wife, Brandi. Their children were playing in the yard and came running inside to tell their parents they heard a loud noise. They ran outside and saw pieces of the plane falling to the ground. There were heavy winds and lightning in the area at the time.
The plane apparently broke apart in the air. Wreckage and personal items were scattered along a mile-long path across the Clarks’ property. Pieces of the wings and a few other parts were found in the pasture across the road from their house, and a main section of the fuselage was pulled from a new lake they’re building several hundred yards behind their home on Butler Road, about two miles east of Hwy. 490. Two suitcases and a brief case were later found near the Clark house.
The pilot’s body was found shortly after 8 p.m., by Clark and another volunteer who were riding the muddy roads on an ATV. It was found on the edge of an old pond, surrounded by overgrowth. “We were riding the logging roads and there was a break in the trees and we got a glimpse of the body,” said Clark. “He was still strapped to his seat.”
The plane’s engine and propeller were found smoking several hundred yards southwest of the pilot’s body.
Search volunteers and law enforcement authorities, organized by Noxubee Emergency Management Director Bobby Mann, were hampered by more lightning and a driving rain storm that arrived shortly after the crash.
Noxubee County Coroner R.L. Calhoun was carried to the site by volunteers on an ATV. He was assisted by LifeCare Ambulance paramedics, Noxubee Sheriff’s Deputies, and volunteers at the site. Shirley’s body was wrapped and loaded into the bed of a four-wheel drive pickup and transported to Calhoun’s van which was waiting in Clark’s driveway.
Calhoun sent the body to a medical examiner in Jackson Friday for an autopsy. Family members were expected to arrive in Jackson early this week to accompany the body on a flight back to Norman.
The flight-tracking website “FlightAware.com” shows Shirley left the Clearwater, Fla. airport about three hours before the crash. The tracking chart shows his path across Alabama, turning north shortly after crossing into Mississippi. The tracking ends near the crash site. Data from the tracking website shows Shirley had taken the plane to 20,000 feet at 4:35 p.m., possibly to fly over a storm in Central Alabama. By the time he crossed into Mississippi he had descended back to about 12,000 feet and that’s the altitude he was flying when radar lost contact with the plane at about 5 p.m. Central Time.
Radar screens on the tracking map for Shirley’s flight show he was near a storm system moving west to east when the crash occurred, indicating the possibility that turbulent wind somehow damaged the plane.
Clark said investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, along with a company representative from Wichita, Kan.-based Beechcraft, spent much of Friday and Saturday at the site of the crash. A crew from Atlanta Air Recovery removed the wreckage Saturday.
Shirley was a well-respected resident of Newcastle, Okla., a Norman suburb. Victoria Middleton, managing editor of the Newcastle Pacer newspaper describes him as very active in the community, including service to his church, Scouting, and public education. He is survived by his wife and two sons, his mother, a brother, and two sisters.
Funeral services are planned for Friday, June 8, at First Baptist Church of Newcastle. Wilson-Little Funeral Home is in charge of the arrangements.
Noxubee County Sheriff Terry Grassaree praised the efforts of the volunteers from the Mashulaville community who aided in the search for the pilot last Thursday. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” he said.0