JACKSON, Miss. - Roger Latham had considered taking a short flight Tuesday night in his small plane with his flying instructor and a couple of other experienced pilots to attend a conference on flight safety held by the Federal Aviation Administration.
At the last minute, he decided to go deer hunting instead.
Shortly after taking off, the single-engine Piper PA-32 began sputtering and crashed into a home in a west Jackson neighborhood, killing all three aboard and injuring a woman inside the home who escaped.
Firefighters, police officers and federal investigators were on the scene Wednesday. Some of them held up a large tarp near the back of the coroner's SUV to block the view as they brought body bags out of the house.
Among the victims was Latham's flight instructor, John Edward Tilton Jr., who was a decorated helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War and had served in numerous roles with the Civil Air Patrol, reaching the rank of colonel and serving as a board member at one time. He was 65.
"He was one of the finest Christian men I knew," Latham said at the scene Tuesday night. "We had three great men who lost their lives," he added. "I just want to wake up in a while and say, 'This didn't happen.' "
Latham said his plane had been parked in a hangar for a month and they wanted to take it out for a short flight before he flew it to Gulf Shores, Ala., for Thanksgiving. Latham said he had owned the plane for 2 1/2 years and described it as being in mint condition.
The plane had just taken off from Hawkins Field Airport in Jackson when a witness said a Jackson police officer said it began "spitting and sputtering."
One of the aviators asked for permission to return to the airport, but just minutes later the plane went down. It crashed through trees before slamming into a house that quickly caught fire, sending long flames and black smoke through the neighborhood of modest single-family homes surrounded by magnolia and oak trees.
"I'm sure John was doing everything he possibly could to save the lives on board," Latham said.
The other two men aboard were William C. Young and David Williams, said Carlton Summer, Mississippi wing commander for the Civil Air Patrol. All three victims were certified flight instructors and CAP pilots, though they were not on official business for the flight.