A witness reported hearing the engine of a small airplane speeding up and slowing down just before it crashed into a tree Sunday, killing three men from Somerset and the teenage son of one, according to a local official.
Kentucky State Police said those who died in the crash in Barren County were Somerset attorney Scott T. Foster, 41; his son, Noah Foster, 15; Kyle P. Stewart, 41, a Somerset dentist; Doug Whitaker, 40, chaplain for the Somerset Police Department.
The four had been on a hunting trip to Tennessee and were returning to Lake Cumberland Regional Airport in Somerset when the crash occurred.
Barren County Coroner Tim Gibson said a deer hunter near the crash site reported hearing the engine revving up, then slowing, then revving up as the plane came down.
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“He said it was revving up, then sounded like it shut off,” said Gibson, who was at the crash site Sunday when the hunter talked to authorities. “It did that three-four times.”
The hunter could not see the single-engine plane at first because of cloud cover. The man described the motion of the plane as a “barrel-roll” when it broke through the clouds, Gibson said.
Hunters found the wreckage and called authorities.
Trooper Jeremy Hodges, spokesman for the state police post that covers Barren County, said the plane crashed in a rural, wooded area in the Fountain Run community. It took him 15 minutes in a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to the site from the road, Hodges said.
It appeared the plane clipped two trees before striking a third and sliding down it, he said.
“It was mangled,” Hodges said of the aircraft.
Federal authorities had not confirmed Monday who was flying the plane. However, Foster was the owner of the 1965 Piper PA-32 and was a licensed pilot.
Gibson said Foster, Stewart and Whitaker died at the scene of the crash. Noah Foster was alive when emergency responders arrived, but was gravely injured and was pronounced dead at a hospital in Bowling Green, Gibson said.
The site of the crash was in far southern Barren County near where it meets Monroe and Allen counties, in south-central Kentucky, Gibson said.
State police received notice of the crash at 3:20 p.m. Sunday. It was raining at the time of the crash, Hodges said.
Barren County deputies watched over the site throughout the night Sunday to preserve the crash scene.
Investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were to go over information about the flight Monday morning and then go to the crash site, officials said.
Investigators will pore over the maintenance history of the plane, gather information about the flight, examine the engine and other components of the plane and try to figure out if factors such as poor weather or pilot fatigue could have been a factors.
The NTSB typically releases some preliminary findings within a week to 10 days, but it could be 18 months or more before the agency releases its report on the probable cause of the crash, said spokesman Terry Williams.
Robert Norfleet, a Somerset attorney who had flown with Foster, said Foster was careful about keeping up the maintenance on the plane and checking it before flights, and had the latest navigation aids.
“He was very meticulous,” Norfleet said. “Something went wrong.”
The crash was stunning news in Somerset, where the men were well known.
Capt. Mike Correll, spokesman for the Somerset police, said Whitaker had been in the Air Force, then later went to law school. He practiced law with Foster, who focused primarily on personal-injury cases.
Whitaker also was a minister, with a master’s degree in divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, according to his LinkedIn page.
He had been chaplain for the police department several years ago, then took a break to continue his education before returning as chaplain in August 2015, Correll said.
Whitaker offered support and counsel for police officers and community members in difficult times and helped with notifying relatives of deaths.
The job is a volunteer position, but Whitaker never hesitated to come out at any hour to help police officers, Correll said.
“He was always there for our officers and our community,” Correll said.
Whitaker had posted photos to Facebook early Sunday of he and others hunting ducks, with the location given as Reelfoot Lake in far western Tennessee.
Stewart received his undergraduate and dental degrees from the University of Kentucky and was a general dentist at Associates in Dentistry, a large practice, where he had been since 2002, according to its website.
Stewart had been active in professional associations, serving as president of the South Central Dental Society, and had been part of a medical mission team to Africa.
Gwenna Bates, a dentist who worked with Stewart, said he was an avid hunter and a friendly, “happy-go-lucky guy.”
“He lit up every room he walked in,” Bates said. “We never went anywhere that he didn’t know somebody. It’s just sad that he was taken so young.”
Attorneys and judges said Foster was friendly and down-to-earth personally, and a skilled, tenacious advocate for his clients in the courtroom.
“The best way to describe him is he had a great heart, a lot of compassion,” said Norfleet, who tried dozens of cases with Foster. “He was a very giving person. He worked extremely hard for his clients.”
Circuit Judge Jeff Burdette said Foster and Whitaker were “creative and innovative in their approach, bringing a courtroom to life.”
“Their loss, and loss of Noah and Kyle, is having a profound impact on our community,” Burdette said.
Circuit Judge David Tapp said lawyers can be sometimes be technically proficient without being able to relate well to people — including jurors — but that Foster had both skills.
“It’s that connection that Scott was able to develop with people that made him such a pleasure to watch in the courtroom,” Tapp said. “He was just a good all-around person.”
Foster’s son, Noah, was a good student and a “genuine, caring soul,” said Ashton Costello, a teacher who had him in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades at Science Hill Independent School.
He liked to make people laugh, but not in a way that disrupted class, she said.
“He was one of those students you can tell whatever he wanted to do, he would be successful at it,” said Costello.
Noah was a sophomore at Pulaski County High school, where grief counselors, psychologists and youth ministers were available Monday to talk to students and staff.
About 200 students held a prayer vigil for Noah at the beginning of school. Students later signed a banner and personal notes to give to his family, said Rodney McAninch, principal at the school.
“Obviously, it’s been pretty rough,” McAninch said. “It’s just been a shocking day.”