Cleburne County Coroner Rudy Rooks said Gilbert, of Pell City, likely died of blunt force trauma from the wreck. An autopsy is being performed.
Officials say the wreckage was found Friday afternoon about two miles north of Heflin, which is about 70 miles east of Birmingham.
Pell City Police Chief Greg Turley had known Gilbert since he was 14 or 15, and remembered talking to the younger pilot as recently as two weeks ago.
Turley said working as a helicopter flight instructor and seeing Gilbert at junior police academy in the past had kept the men on friendly terms over the years.
“He was a good kid and he had that excitement in his eyes about flying,” Turley said. “He had great leadership qualities and kept the biggest smile on his face. I could see myself as a student pilot when I looked at him.”
According to the Federal Aviation Administration Web site, the Piper PA-28 Cherokee was registered to Grills Aviation Inc. in Sterrett.
Authorities say the plane had been scheduled to leave Pell City at 10 p.m. Thursday and was headed toward the Atlanta area. Heflin is about 50 miles east and the wreckage was found in rough terrain.
“We just have to remain patient with the investigation and keep our thoughts and prayers with the family,” Turley said. “This is a sad day for our community and I can’t imagine what the family is going through at a time that should be one of the happiest parts of the year. I hate it for him and his family.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.