PARKTON — A decorated Army doctor was killed Sunday when a small plane he was piloting crashed in woods and burst into flames near Parkton Tobermory Road.
Retired Col. Virgil Thomas Deal Jr. was the acting chief of surgery at the Fayetteville VA Medical Center. He had previously served as command surgeon of Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., and was commander of Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Charles Britt, director of Robeson County Emergency Services, said Deal was alone in a single-engine Piper PA-28 Cherokee that was traveling toward Cumberland County when it crashed at about 3:30 p.m. during overcast and rainy weather.
“Cumberland County had it on their radar and then they lost it,” Britt said. “Then we got a call saying that a plane had crashed.”
The call came from Bob Sealey, who heard the plane’s descent from his home on a dirt road near Smith Farm Road, which runs nearly parallel to Parkton Tobermory Road.
“Planes fly over here all the time, but they don’t make that dive-bombing sound, like in a World War II movie,” he said.
Sealey said his daughter-in-law, while sitting at a kitchen table, saw a “fireball” from a window that overlooks the acres of farmland separating the home from where the crash site.
“When I heard that noise and she saw the ball of fire, I knew something was wrong, and that’s when I made the call,” he said. “I told the 911 operator, bring everything you’ve got.”
The plane crashed near a dirt road between U.S. 301 and Chickenfoot Road, about two miles from the Cumberland County line.
“We’re in the flight path to the runway, so it can happen anytime, but it hasn’t happened as long as I’ve been here and I’ve been here 13 or 14 years,” Sealey said. “But I used to do aircraft maintenance in the Navy, and I know just like anything else, they break.”
Deal had been appointed to the Fayetteville VA Medical Center in October and had served in several positions at Fort Bragg.
Deal had commanded both Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis, Wash., and Walter Reed in Washington, and also served on a special operations medical contingency force conducting U.S. counter-terrorism operations.
Deal was awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Medal for Exemplary Service and the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for his military service.
The aircraft was traveling from an airport in Summerville, S.C., to Fayetteville Regional Airport, according to Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the FAA. Bergen said that the plane was about five miles southwest of the Fayetteville airport when it crashed.
Debbie Smith, who lives near the crash site, told the Fayetteville Observer that the plane “just sounded like it was flying real low. It sounded like there was a problem with the engine. … It sounded like it was cutting out.”
The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate to determine the cause of the crash.