Pilot (17), dad killed

2010-07-26 00:00

HOURS after receiving his pilot’s licence on Saturday morning, a young Wartburg pilot’s joy at taking his ­father on a flight for the first time, turned to tragedy when the aeroplane’s wing clipped a cellphone reception tower and it plummeted into a sugar cane field just off the R614 main road.

Wesley Richards (47) and his son Jason (17), who was flying the light aircraft, died on impact as the aircraft crumpled under the force of the crash.

Gayle, the mother of Jason and wife of Wesley, told The Witness yesterday that an excited Jason had received his licence via courier service on Saturday morning.

“He begged us to let him take us each for a flight. It was the first time we had flown with him. I went first and we had a wonderful 35-minute flight around Eston, Richmond and all over. Then we landed at the airfield at Cato Ridge and he took Wesley. They flew over our house, which is less than one kilometre from the crash site, checking out the sights, before they were tragically taken.”

The horror of the incident was witnessed by several people, including the family’s pastor, who waved to the pair as they flew low over the Christian Revival Church just outside Wartburg.

Pastor Basil Palmer told The Witness that he had watched the plane approaching the church premises around lunchtime on Saturday.

“I waved at them because I know them from our congregation and they waved back.

“I carried on watching them as they passed by and then saw the wing clip the cellphone tower. The wing just folded back and the plane went down.”

Palmer said he rushed to the crash site with others who had seen the incident from the main road. They looked through the cane fields and when they found the wreckage, they could smell the fuel from the aircraft and decided to get the men out of the plane. They were carried to a firebreak near the wreckage and a doctor from the community was summoned along with other emergency services, but it was too late. The father and son were both pronounced dead at the scene, said Palmer.

“This is very difficult. They are from our inner circle,” said a subdued Palmer.

He said the family of the victims had been to the scene and had then come back to the church.

Another person who rendered aid at the scene but asked not to be named said those who had assisted to free the father and son from the wreckage were “stunned and distraught”.

A nurse and a doctor ascertained that the pair were killed on impact.

On Saturday afternoon, the site was buzzing with emergency services personnel and vehicles. The track between the cane fields led to where the father and son lay not far from the wreckage, a stone’s throw from the church premises. All that was left of the light aircraft was a mangled wreck, unrecognisable for what it was, an Aeroprakt A-22.

Jason was a grade 11 pupil at St Charles College and his father was a production manager at the Illovo sugar mill at Eston.

“Wesley was loved by all his staff. He was a wonderful boss. I have been inundated with calls,” said Gayle.

She said Jason had completed six exams and a four-hour flight test to get his licence. “It was his passion and he was good at it. I don’t know what happened. I can’t believe he made a mistake. We believe there was wind turbulence there.”

She described her son as “very smart academically” and as a “go-getter with a passion for life”.

“He wanted to be in the skies,” said Gayle.

She said yesterday that she felt “very numb”.

“I am quite strong. I know they are in heaven. I am being carried by prayer. I have lost two of the most dear people. We were a very, very close family.”

Gayle said her foster son, Clyde (19), was comforting her.

She said St Charles College will be honouring Jason with a memorial service at 1 pm on Wednesday at the St Charles College Chapel, and that anyone is welcome to attend.

A combined memorial service will be held for Wesley and Jason at 10.30 on Friday at Christian Revival Church in Wartburg

Police confirmed that a team of forensic investigators will come from Pretoria to investigate the cause of the accident.

Phindiwe Gwebu, spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority, confirmed that they were investigating the incident. She said investigators were combing the scene yesterday.

The aeroplane belonged to Light Flights, a local flight school.


THE WITNESS reported in May last year that Jason Richards had become one of the youngest people in the province to fly solo.

An ecstatic Jason obtained his learner’s licence for flying a light sport aircraft solo a day after his 16th birthday.

Jason said at the time that he wanted to become an airline pilot. “I was nervous. But once I took off, I was a lot more confident.”

At the time Jason told The Witness that he was the only person he knew of who had received his licence at such a young age.

According to past legislation, one had to be over 17 to receive this particular licence. Before the law changed, it would be impossible for anyone to fly alone at his age.

His flight instructor and the owner of Light Fights, Geoff Dyers, was quoted as joking that Jason could then “... fly [a] R600 000 aircraft around on his own, but he can’t even drive his own dad’s car”.

“If he isn’t the youngest person in the province to get this licence, then he is certainly the youngest person to receive his licence through us [the only flying school in the midlands],” Dyers said.

Jason’s father, Wesley, who introduced him to flying, told The Witness that he was extremely proud of his son, adding that “you want to give your children every opportunity that you never had growing up”.


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