For 18 years, Charles Cooke dreamed of flying the plane he slowly, lovingly built on weekends in his garage. The day his dream finally came true, it killed him.
The 71-year-old retired engineer died in a fiery crash Tuesday on the plane’s maiden flight.
“There are worse ways to die - cancer, heart attacks,” said Don French, manager of the Watsonville Airport. “If you got to go, you might as well go doing something you love.”
Cooke died doing something he loved.
His dream of flying his own plane first took shape in the garage of a home in the Santa Cruz mountains 18 years ago.
He took little bits of styrofoam, glass fiber and wood and painstakingly crafted them into a plane, spurning manufactured kits to build each piece his own way. A Volkswagen airplane engine provided the power.
In July 1996 he planned to fly the yellow, 12-foot aircraft to the Experimental Aircraft Association Exhibition in Wisconsin to show off his pride and joy.
But on Tuesday, only seconds after he took off from Watsonville Airport, something went wrong. The engine seized up, white smoke poured out, the propeller stopped.
The pilot tried desperately to loop back to the runway but lost altitude too quickly.
The little two-seater crashed through a picket fence, slid down a hill and flipped over, smashing into the back of a barn and burning.
The crash puzzles everyone who knew Cooke.
The plane was well-built and had been inspected by the Federal Aviation Administration, French said. French watched Tuesday as Cooke revved up his engine four times, speeding down the runway on test trials before his final takeoff.
“Why didn’t it fail on the third try, or the first try, or the fourth try - why the fifth?” he said.
Others ask the same question. Friends, family and acquaintances use the word “meticulous” almost as a synonym for Cooke’s name.
“He started it because he couldn’t afford to rent a plane, so he decided he’d build one,” said his wife, Helen. But it took 18 years of weekends and spare moments because Cooke insisted on doing it just right.