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A co-pilot died after ‘exiting’ a small plane midflight. There’s now a mystery around what happened

When emergency crews opened the door of the plane after it skidded off the runway at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, only one of the two co-pilots were on board.
/ Source: TODAY

Investigators are continuing to probe what exactly occurred in the skies above North Carolina to ascertain how a 23-year-old co-pilot took off for a work-related flight — and never landed.

A small twin-engine plane with two co-pilots on board made an emergency landing Friday afternoon at Raleigh-Durham International Airport after it reported an issue with its landing gear.

NBC affiliate WRAL obtained a recording of emergency transmissions of the pilot asking air traffic control for help. "Emergency, we’ve lost our right wheel," the pilot said in the recording. "We’d like to speak to Raleigh and make an emergency landing at Raleigh."

The plane skidded off the runway into the grass between two of the runways at the Raleigh airport, according to a statement from the Federal Aviation Administration, but when emergency crews opened the door of the plane, only one of the two co-pilots were on board.

Emergency crews spraying water on the plane that skidded between runways at Raleigh's airport.
Emergency crews spraying water on the plane that skidded between runways at Raleigh's airport. Courtesy Simon Palmore

A search for the missing co-pilot began. Wake County Emergency Management Chief of Operations Darshan Patel told NBC News that a resident of Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, contacted first responders and said they "heard something in their backyard."

Police said the body of Charles Hew Crooks was recovered hours after the crash near the suburban residence and that he had "exited a plane while in mid-flight." He did not survive the fall.

It is unclear why Crooks exited the plane, or if he jumped or fell out of the aircraft. Authorities said the 23-year-old did not have a parachute.

The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the crash.

Crooks' father, Hew Crooks, told NBC News his son "was never happier than when he was talking about his flying."

Charlie, as his parents called him, pursued his private pilot's license while he was a sophomore in college and worked as a flight instructor for over a year, his father told WRAL. His son had been certified in flying in just about any condition and his family is now left struggling to figure out what happened.

"We’re a strong family and we’re a very loving family. But this, it leaves a hole," his father told WRAL. "We can’t process it right now."

Officials said the other co-pilot was treated and released at a local hospital, WRAL reported. Investigators have not publicly released the identity of the surviving pilot, but are probing if his insight could provide some answers.

"There’s a Charlie sized hole missing that we’ll never be able to fill," Hew Crooks said.