In his 47 years of flying, Bob Heale survived being shot down over Laos and logged more than 31,000 hours in the air.
The Spokane man died Saturday, after completing just two turns in his stunt plane in front of a horrified crowd at the Aerospace Days air show.
The plane, a French-made CAP-10B, landed in a cloud of dust in a grassy field at Fairchild Air Force Base. Heale, 62, died shortly after being flown by helicopter to Deaconess Medical Center.
Hospital officials waited to announce Heale’s death until after notifying his wife, Marianne, who left Saturday on a trip to Houston. Heale also had three adult sons.
“He was considered a good friend,” said Pete Anest, a fellow pilot. “I really can’t believe he lost control of that airplane.”
The accident is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board with the help of the Federal Aviation Administration. On Sunday, evidence pointed to a mechanical problem, a freezing up of one of the plane’s directional controls.
Heale knew he was in trouble less than a minute before his 21-year-old plane plummeted to the ground. He radioed the control tower.
“I got a locked control,” Heale said calmly.
Seven seconds later, an air-traffic controller asked the pilot what he said. Heale repeated himself. “I got a locked control.”
Five seconds ticked by.
“I’m gonna go in,” said Heale, agitated. Thirty-three seconds later, the plane skidded into the ground on its belly.
FAA investigator Larry Richards said “locked control” probably refers to the cable-operated aileron that controls rolling movements of the airplane.
Investigators will also look at other possible factors, including engine problems and pilot error. The investigation will take three to six months.
Richards asked spectators with videotape of Heale’s aborted flight to contact investigators.
On Sunday, the Fairchild air show resumed - with a full schedule of aerobatics - after a moment of silence and thousands of bowed heads for Heale.
About 15,000 people attended, more than double Saturday’s crowd.
“It’s an unfortunate thing that happens at air shows,” Capt. Mark Brown, a Fairchild spokesman, said of the crash. “We don’t want it to happen. Sometimes it just does.”
Pilots who knew Heale never expected it to happen to him.
He was a well-known aviator, a regular at local air shows, Felts Field and Silverwood Theme Park. He started flying at 15 and never stopped, piloting low-level surveillance missions in Vietnam and Laos, dusting crops in the Columbia Basin and ferrying cargo for Federal Express. Along with his wife, Heale ran Robmar Aviation at Felts Field.
Heale, nicknamed “Catman,” also loved big cats. Three tigers, two cougars and a black panther roam the couple’s property south of Spokane.
Steve Soper, a former aerobatic pilot from Rathdrum, Idaho, knew Heale for 20 years. They flew in numerous air shows together.
Soper compared Heale’s graceful, fluid rolls and loops to a well-choreographed ballet.
“He was a real good pilot with a lot of experience,” Soper said. “He didn’t fly a risky show; he flew a very safe show.”
In 1987, Heale raced in the world’s biggest air race in Reno, Nev., for a share of the world’s largest purse. That year, he told The Spokesman-Review why he loved flying: “I guess it’s just that when I’m up there, I’m all by myself, and it’s a rather serene-type feeling.”
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Kim Barker Staff writer Staff writer Winda Benedetti contributed to this report.