Pilot shot himself before crashing single-engine plane in Arizona

A pilot shot and killed himself moments before his small plane crashed at the airport in Bullhead City, Ariz., on Sunday, authorities have determined.

A medical examiner determined during a Monday autopsy that Thomas Joseph, 44, of Cornville, Ariz., died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, Bullhead City police spokeswoman Emily Fromelt said.

Joseph flew from the central Arizona city of Cottonwood and shot himself over the Laughlin/Bullhead International Airport moments before he crashed, between 6 and 7 a.m., Fromelt said.

Joseph was alone in the plane, and no one on the ground saw the crash. Wreckage was discovered about 7:20 a.m. between the runway and a parallel taxiway.

A 9 mm semiautomatic handgun was found in the cockpit of the experimental RV-4 aircraft, Fromelt said.

Federal investigators removed the wreckage Sunday.

Patrick Jones, a National Transportation Safety Board accident investigator, said he has investigated more than 300 crashes in 11 years with the agency but cannot recall “an in-flight shooting.”

The NTSB’s aviation accident database lists 70 crashes in which suicide was at least suspected as a cause, but none in the past 10 years involved a pilot who was shot dead before impact.

There are no cameras at the Bullhead City airport, and the plane had no flight data recorder, so it’s almost impossible to know whether the pilot tried to position the plane to crash before shooting himself, Jones said.

“Once the pilot is deceased, there’s no telling where the aircraft might go,” he said.

The NTSB will issue only a short report on the incident, he said.

“We investigate accidents,” Jones said. “This doesn’t appear to be an accident.”

Review-Journal writer Henry Brean contributed to this report.