RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Nearly 1.5 years after an airplane pilot fell to his death in a Fuquay-Varina neighborhood, the full circumstances surrounding how and why he fell remain unclear.
A full investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board has been unable to determine if Charles Hew Crooks, a 23-year-old co-pilot on the aircraft, accidentally or intentionally fell out of the plane.
It all happened on July 20.
A skydiving plane with two pilots finished its second run and was on its way to pick up third group of skydivers when the plane was damaged.
The pilot in command said that Crooks was flying the approach when the plane dropped and the right main landing gear hit the runway surface.
The pilot in command took over controls. The pilot flew a low approach where Raeford West Airport personnel confirmed the landing gear was damaged. At this point, the pilots declared an emergency and coordinated with air traffic control to make a planned emergency landing at RDU.
During the flight to RDU, the pilots reported moderate turbulence. In addition, the pilot in charge said Crooks was visibly upset about the hard landing at Raeford West Airport.
Crooks reported feeling sick and needing air. He opened his cockpit window and lowered the ramp in the back of the plane. He then told the other pilot that he was sorry, got up from his seat and ran toward the back of the airplane.
Crooks then fell out of the plane, landing 20 miles away from the airport in a Fuquay-Varina neighborhood. He did not survive the fall.
The pilot in command reported that Crooks' intentionally jumped out of the airplane. However, the NTSB said "there was insufficient information to support that assertion."
None of Crooks' family or co-workers had any concerns about his state-of-mind or any indication that he was suicidal. They did say Crooks had been talking about the importance of his upcoming flight with the pilot in command.
"It sounds like he was pretty upset about the entire situation," retired pilot Tal Holloway said. "The anxiety is overwhelming, then obviously you're going to try to cool yourself down. For him, it seemed that getting the fresh air was supposed to help him with the nausea."
Although questions remain as to why Crooks left the plane, Holloway said it's a very complicated situation that's stressful, nonetheless.
"He had to be worried about his career and his future," Holloway said. "For you to have an incident where you hit so hard like that, that probably created a tremendous amount of stress for him."
NTSB investigators said Crooks' actions before running to the back of the airplane were consistent with what a pilot who is feeling nauseous would do.
"However, (Crooks) made an unsafe decision to run to the rear of the cabin with the ramp in a fully lowered position," the report reads. "It is possible in his haste he lost his footing when encountering the area of the ramp and inadvertently fell from the airplane."
NTSB also reports that Crooks had a kratom product in his body at the time of his death. Kratom is a class of drugs often used to treat anxiety which can cause impairment. In addition, the NTSB notes that people with anxiety are predisposed to having heightened physiological responses to stress, which can include feelings of nausea, dizziness, etc.
"Although it is possible that effects of kratom may have contributed to nausea or to some dizziness or perceptual impairment that may have increased his risk of falling, there is insufficient evidence to determine whether effects of the SIC's kratom use contributed to the accident," the report said.
The NTSB just recently addressed mental health in aviation in a safety summit in December.
"Looks like they were doing everything they should be doing," Executive Director at Robertson Safety Institute David Ryan said. "Something triggered something at some point. So if this pilot was having problems before even that flight day, the main message is to reach out and get some help."
"Mental health and aviation is a big focus," Ryan said. "It's important for everybody to know that a lot of time and effort and resources are being spent on it."