GALVESTON — A pilot from Denton and passenger from the United Kingdom died Wednesday morning when a World War II-era airplane based at the Lone Start Flight Museum crashed in West Galveston Bay, officials said.
Pilot Keith Hibbett, 51, and John Stephen Busby, 66, died in the 11:35 a.m. crash near the middle of the bay just at the Galveston and Brazoria county line, Sgt. John Sampa, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said.
Busby traveled to Galveston with his wife to celebrate their 41st wedding anniversary, Sampa said. The men were aboard a TF-51, a two-seat version of the P-51 Mustang. The plane, called the Galveston Gal, was registered to the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame at the flight museum, Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said.
The aircraft took off from Scholes International Airport. Authorities recovered the bodies from the crash scene near Chocolate Bay in about 8 feet of water, Sampa said. The remote area is north of the West End of Galveston Island and only accessible by boat. The plane wasn’t visible during high tide, Sampa said.
Larry Gregory, the museum’s president, said the pilot was like a brother to him. The passenger paid for a flight in the vintage aircraft, Gregory said.
“He’s been one of our senior pilots for over a decade,” Gregory said. “He flies everything we have, so he’s a very experienced, former military aviator.”
The pilot was not in contact with the island’s air traffic control tower at the time of the crash, Lunsford said.
Fishermen reported seeing the end of the crash, Sampa said. The FAA notified the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the cause of the crash, Lunsford said. The FAA marked the scene and left Wednesday afternoon. The investigation was expected to resume Thursday, Sampa said.
“We’re just assuming something equipment-wise happened to the plane that caused them to go down,” Sampa said.
The Coast Guard launched a search and rescue helicopter and a small boat from its Freeport headquarters, Petty Officer Steven Lehmann said.
Members of the Galveston Marine Response Unit launched search and rescue boats from Galveston’s West End.
The plane was manufactured in 1944, according to the FAA. The flight museum added the TF-51 to its collection in March of 2010, and allowed people to ride in it for a fee. The TF-51 adorns a billboard along the southbound lanes of Interstate 45 advertising the “Warbird” rides.
Plane ‘meticulously maintained’
The plane flew to an airshow in Fort Worth last weekend with no issues, and it was scheduled to participate in the Wings over Houston Airshow this weekend, Gregory said.
“The airplane was meticulously maintained,” Gregory said.
The museum on its website advertises trainer flight experiences to the general public, including on the P-51 Mustang, which flew 60 missions during World War II.
Gregory said he was saddened by the loss of two great people, and called the crash the worst event since Hurricane Ike flooded the museum with 8 feet of water in September 2008.
“I used to say the worst thing that happened around here was Hurricane Ike,” Gregory said. “This is by far one of the most difficult things I’ve ever gone through. Our pilot was like a brother to me. He’s taught me a lot about flying and everything else. It’s just devastating.”