An official said Tuesday that a pilot of a single-engine plane reported engine trouble at some point before the craft crashed into a heavily wooded area of north Bryan County on Monday, killing three people.
But John Brannen, NTSB senior air safety investigator, stressed that officials are still assessing the site and the wreckage, and investigators have not determined a definitive cause of the crash.
“We arrived on the scene (Tuesday) morning. We have had a chance to assess the scene. The airplane came to rest in a wooded, swampy area. Because of the location of the wreckage we can’t do a whole lot of examination on scene,” Brannen said.
“For that reason I have been in touch with the recovery service that will remove the airplane from the scene. It will be taken to their facility in Griffin, Ga., where we will do more examination over the coming days,” he said.
The crash killed William Byron Cocke, 42, his wife Catherine Cocke, 39, both of Savannah, along with pilot and owner of the plane, Randy D. Hunter of Tyrone, Ga.
“The airplane departed the Savannah airport on an instrument flight plan. So he was in communication with the Savannah air traffic control tower. He communicated by radio to the Savannah air traffic control tower that he was having engine problems. At the time of the accident he was attempting to return to the Savannah airport,” Brannen said.
“For that reason we will also remove the engine from the airplane. It will be sent to the manufacturer’s facility in Mobile, Ala. I will go down at a later date to do a full tear-down examination of that engine.”
Radar data and voice communications between the pilot and the tower are being collected for review. Maintenance records for the airplane have been located and are being taken to the FAA facility in Atlanta.
The single-engine Beech Bonanza en route from the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport to Cobb County disappeared from radar about 8:30 a.m. Monday.
The plane’s last known altitude was 300 feet, according to Freddie Howell, director of Bryan County Emergency Services, which helped in the search for the plane Monday. “They gave us coordinates close to here. We proceeded to those coordinates and we rode past that area several times. The Coast Guard was dispatched, two helicopters, the Savannah Mosquito Control helicopter was also sent to the area. They searched for some time.
“At 11:18 the Mosquito Control crew notified us that they had identified a downed aircraft off of Croft Road.”
The helicopter crew was able to land in an adjacent field and make its way to the crash site, where they found no survivors, Howell said.
The airplane is a six-seat single engine 1994 Beech A36 capable of 300 mph. No prior incidents or accidents had been reported for the aircraft.
Brannen said most investigations of this type typically take between six and 12 months.
Cocke and his wife had five children. The couple were remembered Tuesday by the Savannah Downtown Neighborhood Association as well as Byron Cocke’s company. Cocke was the co-CEO of CF Real Estate Services.
Co-CEO Brett Finkelstein issued a statement on behalf of the company: “On Monday, Aug. 28 our Co-CEO Byron Cocke and his wife Catherine passed away in the crash of a small plane. We are devastated by this tragic loss. They were philanthropic, creative, intelligent, caring and entrepreneurial. Byron and Catherine were devoted to their five beautiful children, who are being cared for by their extended family. As we all cope with this loss, we ask that everyone celebrate their lives and respect the privacy of those who love them.”
Finkelstein said Byron “personified love of family, love of company and love for co-workers. He was laid back — yet motivated us to be the best we could possibly be and to treat the company as if it were our own. … We will always strive for the greatness Byron envisioned. His dreams are still very much alive, as we continue in his honor. We send our love to their family.”
The Savannah DNA also issued a statement on the Cockes: “The Downtown Neighborhood Association Board is shaken and saddened by the tragic loss of a Board member, dear friends and neighbors, Catherine and William Byron Cocke. Mr. and Mrs. Cocke have been active in not only the Downtown Neighborhood Association but also countless other civic organizations. The Savannah community has lost a shining light in this beautiful couple and while our hearts are heavy, we ask for prayers for their surviving five children and encourage that the media respect the family’s wish for privacy.
“Our support is unwavering and those closest to the family are committed to helping them in whatever capacity needed in this difficult time.”
Hunter’s wife, Kristen, released a statement about her husband Wednesday afternoon:
“We are heartbroken to share the news that Randy Hunter, of Tyrone, Georgia, passed away Monday, August 28, 2017, as a result of a tragic aircraft accident in Bryan County. Randy was a beloved husband, father, son, sibling and friend. Randy had a passion for his family and all things related to aviation and loved flying. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Cocke family who also lost two beloved and cherished family members in this tragic accident on August 28. The Hunter family is sincerely grateful to all the first responders in their efforts to locate the aircraft. We ask for your prayers for the Hunter family as well as the Cocke family as we all try to deal with this tragedy.”