By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - Search crews in rural Tennessee have found the body of a man who fell an estimated 2,500 feet to his death after the cockpit canopy of his airplane opened, officials said on Saturday.
"They found him in a tree line, not too far off the road," about a half-mile from a volunteer fire station, said Bob Gault, spokesman for the Bradley County Sheriff's Office.
Gault said he would have to wait until the National Transportation Safety Board completes an investigation before confirming reports that the man was not wearing his safety harness and that the plane had gone into a nosedive at the time of the accident late on Friday afternoon.
Emergency personnel from Bradley County as well as a Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter were called into the search for the missing man after his co-pilot was able to fly the plane back to Collegedale Municipal Airport after the accident, according to Gault.
Local reports said that man who died was an experienced pilot who was being trained to fly the plane, which he had recently purchased.
Gault said the single-engine aircraft left Collegedale Municipal Airport just outside Chattanooga between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Friday. The flight path took them over southern Bradley County, a rural area with many farms and few communities.
"There were two pilots on board," Gault said. "At some point during their flight, the canopy on the aircraft malfunctioned and, as a result, one of the pilots was ejected."
Search efforts from the air and on the ground were unsuccessful Friday night and resumed on Saturday morning. Gault said the fact that the body was in a tree line probably kept it from being spotted from the air.
The names of the pilots involved have not been released. A worker at the airport who asked not to be identified said both men were experienced pilots and "real nice guys."
(Editing by Nick Carey and Gunna Dickson)