Search continues for pilot’s body

A pilot whose helicopter crashed Friday night after the NASCAR Nationwide Series race has been identified, but authorities continue to search for his body.

Bill Starnes, chief pilot of Food City’s corporate copter, was the only person aboard the craft when it crashed into a lake just north of the Tennessee border, a Virginia State Police spokeswoman told TriCities.com.

The copter had just taken off from near the Virginia lake after having delivered six people from Bristol Motor Speedway, site of the Nationwide Food City 250 race Friday night.

Starnes was flying a 1996 Bell 407 copter when it crashed into South Holston Lake, near a home owned by Steve Smith, Food City’s president and chief executive officer, TriCities.com reported. The aircraft was partially owned by K-VA-T Foods, parent company of Food City. The Food City grocery chain has sponsored the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Bristol for 20 years.

The crash occured about 10:30 p.m. local time Friday, not long after the NASCAR race had ended. Police told TriCities.com they discovered the craft late Friday but had not found Starnes.

The impact caused the copter to break into several pieces, according to the police. “The helicopter was still floating out there,” Sgt. John Ratliff of the Virginia State Police aviation division told TriCities.com. “When it sank, we spent several hours cleaning up debris.”

The helicopter was in water estimated to be between 20 and 40 feet deep, police said.

Food City officials declined comment to TriCities.com about the crash.

But on Saturday, before the Irwin Tools Night Race, Bristol Motor Speedway general manager Jerry Caldwell asked the crowd to keep the Food City family in their thoughts and prayers.

The search will not end until the pilot is found, officials said. They also will investigate what caused the crash.