My friend Wynn Baker flew for Delta then and we took Cub '906 to Lumberton one day while he was on a layover. Wynn knows as much about airplanes as anybody alive. When John proudly showed him the full IFR panels in both Pittses, Wynn was polite but obviously baffled. "Amazing, but why would you do that?" he asked. Even the A36 was loaded with so much equipment there wasn't much left for people and fuel. It was stuffed with the latest and greatest King equipment (Loran and RNAV then), full dual instrumentation, radar, standby electrical system, extra battery and vacuum pump, wing deice and more.
Here's where the story gets hard for me.
Getting full use out of a spirited, high-performance airplane with sophisticated equipment and flying single pilot demands training, currency and experience. John was intelligent, proficient and safety conscious. But I wonder if he really understood the importance of experience, or the limitations of a lack of experience. It's about the vast difference between having three thousand hours and having one hour three thousand times. Oh, he talked about trips he'd made, but he didn't make any while I knew him. I could see he wasn't "at home" with flight planning, filing, analyzing weather or even communicating with ATC. Like many of us he flew instruments beautifully but only under simulated conditions. I often rode safety pilot while he practiced approaches under the hood and we'd always finish with his homemade Loran approach to Runway 18 at Lumberton. He was so proud of the precise and official-looking (but very illegal) approach plate he'd had drawn by a draftsman at his plant. In truth, John rarely left southern Ohio, and I doubt he'd ever dealt with critical weather issues or the need to take alternate actions "in anger."
"Are you sitting down?"
The phone was ringing as I walked in the door. It was Christmas night and, driving home across the levee past Lunken, I'd pulled over to look at the red, white and green lights on the airport. Fog was forming rapidly but they glowed in the mist and the "rabbit" was flashing on the approach for 21L. It was beautiful ... it was my Christmas tree.
"Am I what? Yeah, go ahead."
The rest of that night will always be a nightmarish collage of images: splashing through an icy creek and into a muddy field surrounded by tall trees; the twisted wreckage of the A36 garishly illuminated by spotlights from fire trucks and news vans; crouching down at the shattered cockpit and cradling the back of John's head in my hands, whispering a prayer and telling him it was OK, I was there, I'd make sure everything would be done the right way.
John and his son, Dave, in the left seat, were dead on impact. Dave's wife, badly hurt, had wandered through woods and fields for over an hour before she found help. The infant, Nikki, in her arms on impact, was gone. And little five-year-old Leah, who'd become my special friend, walked away relatively unscathed from a rear-facing seat.
Of course I shouldn't have been there. But a mutual friend, a state trooper I'd taught to fly, told the dispatcher to make the call. He himself was devastated and he knew I would want and need to be there. That John and I were close wasn't widely known, so when I called the acting FSDO manager, he OK'd the trip and thanked me for being willing to respond so late on this Christmas night. I called Stan Faske, an airworthiness inspector who actually had the duty that night and who also knew John. We met at the office, collected our gear and started the slow 60-mile trip through the now very dense fog in his truck, not knowing for sure who the victims were, both of us hoping it wasn't John.
One look at the accident scene and our worst fears were confirmed. I've always been blessed with a protective mental wall that lets me function well, even at pretty horrific scenes. I knew, at some level, the wall would eventually come crashing down and the grieving would be intense. But not now. We did what we were trained to do. The terrain was so rough and muddy that the EMS team carefully put the bodies in Stan's all-wheel-drive truck and we drove them across the creek to where the ambulance waited.
NTSB arrived the next day and other inspectors were assigned when I explained about my relationship with the family. But the investigator asked me to help because I knew the pilots well and because the two hospitalized survivors, Leah and her mother, refused to talk to anyone else.