Tupelo airport director says security review is planned after stolen plane incident

Airport director says it's not clear if anything could have been done to prevent the incident

TUPELO, MISS. (WCBI) – Tupelo airport officials will have a debriefing with the TSA, days after a Lee County man stole a plane, causing panic across the region.

For the past three days, Joe Wheeler, executive director of the Tupelo Regional Airport Authority, has replayed the events of Saturday over and over, to see if anything could have been done differently.

“I’ve actually, reached out to aviation security experts I know, asking him what we could have done to prevent it, he said, it’s a crime of opportunity, it’s hard to prevent those, can’t read someone’s mind,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler says he was shocked when he was told early Saturday morning by one of his staff, that 29-year-old Cory Patterson had stolen a plane from Tupelo Aviation, the Flight Based Operator he worked for, and was flying over West Tupelo, threatening to crash into the West Main Wal Mart.

“He was a laid back guy, nice, hard worker, I didn’t know him outside of work, but I’d go there a couple of times a day, talk to him, shoot the bull, he was a good guy,” he said.

Now, Wheeler is preparing for a debriefing with the Transportation Security Administration on Wednesday.

“It will be a lot of review processes, into our own ways of doing things, but as of right now, we can’t pinpoint anything we could do different,” Wheeler said.

Regardless of what comes from that debriefing, Wheeler says he is pleased with the response from police, fire, and local agencies, who he says were dealing with a very fluid and unique incident.

“Lines of communication were good, everybody did what they were supposed to,” he said.

Wheeler says Patterson had access to the plane, because of his work and had fueled the twin-engine Beechcraft the night before.  He says Patterson apparently had a student pilot’s license from 2013 that was never renewed.  But he also had additional training, which he would have needed to start the twin-engine plane, and isn’t hard to come by.

“Pilots around here a lot of times, will take guys up flying.  This is something you can go on YouTube and see the starting procedure for a King Air 90, probably one of the most widely used aircraft out there,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler says he and his staff are thankful no one was hurt during the five-hour ordeal, which disrupted not only people’s lives on the ground but also air traffic in the region.

We are also told that while Columbus Air Force Base was aware of the situation, there was never any request made for pilots from the base to intervene.


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