PAULA OSPINA, Max Garland and Micaela A Watts – Jackson Sun

Madison County Fire Department and Sheriff’s Department were out Monday morning looking for a missing plane, that was later located west of Mercer, about 10 miles from McKellar-Sipes Regional Airport.  

The plane had crashed, killing the only person on board, who was later identified as Memphis business and community leader George Cates.

Eric Turner, Madison County Fire Department Chief and his team, received a call around 9 a.m. and it took them about 50 minutes to locate the plane. 

“My understanding is that the pilot had radioed ahead and was experiencing some trouble and then they lost contact with that pilot,” Turner said.  

When the single engine plane descended, it encountered some trees, located at the edge of the woods, off the roadway. The plane was found in good condition.

“The airport he was trying to make it to, due to declaring an emergency was McKellar-Sipes Regional Airport,” Turner said. “I don’t think that was his destination but when you start experiencing difficulties that was the closest, we feel like he was trying to get to.” 

Pilot remembered for his service to others

Cates, a Memphis community leader and former chairman and CEO of Mid-America Apartment Communities, Inc., died in the crash according to Steve Barlow, president and co-founder of an organization Cates chaired.

Barlow, president and co-founder of Neighborhood Preservation, Inc. in Memphis, said he received the news from Cates’ brother. Cates was 83, according to Mid-America Apartment Communities spokesperson Jennifer Patrick.

Cates founded the Cates Company in 1977, which went public in 1994 as Mid-America Apartment Communities, Inc. (MAA), according to the Memphis Society of Entrepreneurs’ member page about Cates. He has also chaired boards of several Memphis organizations, including Memphis Light Gas & Water, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, the Memphis Symphony, the Memphis Rotary Club and more, it said.

Cates served as MAA president and CEO until his retirement in 2001 and approached leadership “with a servant heart and a humble style,” said MAA Chairman and CEO H. Eric Bolton Jr. in a statement.

“While some of us had the privilege of working directly with George for a number of years, everyone at MAA today knows something about him through the culture and long-term success that defines our company today,” he said.

Cates was a ubiquitous non-profit administrator, known for fostering deep connections among Memphians determined to raise the quality of life for others. 

Barlow called Cates, “the ultimate connector,” in Memphis.

“You couldn’t go a week without him telling you about someone that you needed to talk to,” said Barlow. “And sometimes, you know, the people he would connect you to … you would have no idea why. But eventually, you’d figure it out.”

Cates cared about myriad issues that impacted fellow Memphians, Barlow said, but housing in particular was something he remained fixated on. 

“He was really interested in what he called ‘slum housing,’ because he had made his whole career on providing high-quality rental apartments all over the southeast. But, it always bothered him that there were these people who were making money on poor people while providing substandard housing.”

It’s why, Barlow said, that in his last years working with Mid-America Apartment Communities before retiring — Cates fixated on raising awareness in his professional circles about the negative consequences of substandard housing, and how it could further exacerbate poverty.

About the flight

The Madison County Sheriff’s office received a call around 9:30 a.m. from the county fire department that said a plane was missing, Mapes said. Authorities found the plane around 11 a.m. in Mercer, which was flying out of Memphis toward Asheville, North Carolina, he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed the pilot’s death. The plane was a single-engine Cirrus SR22T, and only the pilot was on board.

“The Federal Aviation Administration will release the tail number of the aircraft after investigators verify it at the accident site,” the FAA said in a statement. “The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board will investigate. Neither agency identifies people involved in aircraft accidents or incidents.”