Valdosta Daily Times

December 12, 2012

Pilot dies in plane crash

Small plane went down in south Lowndes County

Kay Harris
The Valdosta Daily Times

LOWNDES COUNTY — Rick Poppell, 52, of Jesup, Ga. died in the crash of a single engine private airplane Monday evening in south Lowndes County.

Poppell, a prominent businessman and owner of Poppell Produce, was piloting the small aircraft, reported to be a DA40 by The Press Sentinel in Jesup. He had just taken off from the Valdosta Regional Airport around 7:40 p.m. and within moments, called the tower to say, “I’m in trouble, I’m in trouble.” That was the last communication received from Poppell.

Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine said officials from the sheriff’s office were joined by Georgia State Patrol officers and a GSP helicopter to aid in the search. Poppell’s plane was located shortly before 11 a.m. Tuesday morning.

“He had flown from Jesup to a location in Florida to conduct business and stopped in Valdosta to refuel,” said Prine. “He had some business here in town, so he made a stop or two before coming back to the airport and flying back to Jesup. Once he got in the air, he called saying he was in trouble.”

Prine said the plane was located approximately five miles from the airport and that Poppell could not have survived the crash.

“We started looking immediately Monday night based on the coordinates of where he would be in his flight path and had to stop around 3 a.m. because the fog was too dense. We picked up the search again around 8 a.m. and finally got a tip that led us to the site,” said Prine.

Officials were able to “ping” Poppell’s cell phone, which helped narrow the location down, and two teams searched, one on the east and one on the west of I-75. Finally on Tuesday morning, a citizen called Prine and said he thought he might have seen the aircraft go down Monday night, but didn’t realize what he saw until he heard about the missing plane Tuesday.

“He saw it go behind some trees, but assumed it was a crop duster. I went and talked with him and relayed the approximate location to the GSP helicopter, and within five minutes, they had spotted the wreckage,” said Prine.

The area where the plane crashed was off Old Lake Park Road in southern Lowndes County close to Lake Park. The large property is owned by J.C. McMullen and is heavily wooded, according to Prine.

“The plane was located about 300 yards from a house on the property, but the owners said they heard nothing unusual Monday night,” Prine said.

Valdosta Regional Airport Manager Jim Galloway said Tuesday that small aircraft such as the one Poppell was flying are not required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to file a flight plan and he did not know when the plane had arrived in Valdosta, but confirmed that Poppell took off at 7:40 p.m.

Officials from the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are en route to Valdosta to view the wreckage and the entire area has been cordoned off by Lowndes County Sheriff’s deputies pending their arrival.

“I really wish it had turned out a lot better than it did,” said Prine, as officials were hoping to find Poppell alive at the scene.

“This is very sad for the family.”

Prine said more than 50 deputies and GSP officers on the ground were aided in the search by GSP aviation, members of the Civil Air Patrol, Echols County deputies and Lowndes County emergency personnel.

“Everybody got together as a team and we were determined to find this aircraft,” he said. The cause of the crash will be determined by the FAA and NTSB investigators.

The News Sentinel in Jesup provided biographical information on Poppell, who was a beloved figure in the community. Recently, Poppel and his wife Cathy received a certificate of appreciation from Gov. Nathan Deal and his wife Sandra after delivering 10 frasier fir Christmas trees to the Governor’s Mansion. Poppell was active in the Republican party and in the campaigns of Gov. Deal and former Gov. Sonny Perdue.

According to the newspaper, Poppell founded Poppell’s Produce in 1991 in Jesup as a wholesale company dealing in fruits and vegetables. The company had grown into a $2.5 million business and is known in the state for pumpkins and Christmas trees, setting up stands in Valdosta and other areas to sell the seasonal products every Halloween and Christmas season.

Poppell was married to wife Cathy and they have four children, Jonathan, Jacob, Katlyn and Ben. Visitors to the business’ Facebook page posted condolences to the family throughout the day on Tuesday.

The News Sentinel reports that funeral arrangements have not yet been finalized.