Steamboat Springs A plane crash that killed two men in Steamboat Springs Sunday afternoon was not the result of an aerobatic stunt, organizers of a Labor Day vintage plane event said Monday.
The crash near the Ramada hotel on Hilltop Drive killed Lynn David White, 49, of Steamboat Springs and the pilot of the vintage warplane, 59-year-old Joseph Gunnels of Aurora. Both men were remembered fondly Monday by friends and family members struggling to cope with the tragedy.
Gunnels was flying a 1958 SNJ-5 propeller-driven aircraft that witnesses said went into a flat spin and fell to the ground around 2 p.m. Sunday. The plane landed in a vacant construction site about 300 yards from the Ramada Vacation Suites Hilltop. No one on the ground was injured.
Steamboat Springs Airport officials said that, to their knowledge, the pilot was not intending to do any aerobatic stunts during a flyover of the city. The flyover was timed to coincide with the opening of a professional bull riding event at Romick Arena in downtown Steamboat Springs.
"All they were doing was a normal formation flyover," said Steamboat Springs Airport Manager Matthew Grow.
In order to legally perform aerobatic stunts, a pilot must first receive clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration. Because neither White nor Gunnels had attempted to obtain permission from the FAA, they should not have been planning on performing any tricks, Grow said.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Norm Wiemeyer supervised the piece-by-piece removal of the SNJ-5 airplane from the crash site Monday. It was headed for an airport in Greeley for further investigation.
City officials plan to wait for the transportation agency's report before making any statements about the crash.
"The NTSB is now in charge," said Deputy City Manager Wendy DuBord.
White is survived by his wife, Linda, and two stepchildren, Matt, 25 and Claudia, 22. He has two brothers, Neil and Brian and a sister, Marianne.
Gunnels is survived by his wife, Jane, and two children, Joe Jr., 28, and Jill, 31. He also has four grandchildren and a brother, Riley.
Both men served in the military. White was an Air Force gunner and Gunnels was a Marine pilot.
White served in the Persian Gulf War on a B-52 bomber as a gunner. He won numerous medals from the Air Force, in which he served for 20 years, his wife said. Most recently he had been working for Native Excavating in Steamboat. He also was active in the local Civil Air Patrol squadron, Linda White said. The Civil Air Patrol is a non-paid civilian auxiliary to the U.S. Air Force.
"We had just seen him the morning of the event," said Susan McAllister, the co-owner of Steamboat Soaring Adventures. "He was a very well-respected member of our local community of pilots."
Gunnels served in the "Purple Fox" squadron in Vietnam. In fact, he painted the fuselage and wings of his vintage plane purple bordered in black to commemorate the men who did not return from Vietnam with him. The number 14 was painted on his fuselage in memory of the 14 men in his squadron who died in Vietnam. Gunnels went on to become a pilot for United Airlines.
"He practiced every other day in that airplane," said his son, Joe Gunnels Jr. "He was the most professional of all the pilots I've ever met."
Bill Porter, a retired United pilot, knew Gunnels for 25 years, including their shared time in the military.
"Joe Gunnels was my best friend and wingman of 25 years; a thoroughly professional airman and the bravest man I've ever known," Porter said.
Gunnels had been practicing formation flying maneuvers like the one prior to Sunday's accident for a number of years, his son, Joseph Jr., said. He had even taught others formation maneuvers with the Joint Liaison Formation Committee, an organization he helped found in 1993. The pattern of the formation flyover Sunday was probably his idea, his son said.
The accident will not impact plans to bring back the Vintage Fly-in next Labor Day weekend to Steamboat Springs, said Grow, the airport manager.
"The best way to get over something like this is to get back on your feet and keep going," he said. "I'd like to do the fly-in all over again next year and make it bigger."
Planes continued to fly into the airport Monday in conjunction with an Experimental Aircraft Association Aviation Foundation "Young Eagles" program. Before the program, in which local pilots took children up in private airplanes and taught them about flying, organizers discussed the accident with the children.
"In addition to going through our regular orientation and introduction to flying for these children, we made sure that there were no questions or apprehensions regarding the accident," said Jim "Moose" Barrows, who helped out with the Eagles program.
White's family will hold a funeral at Holy Name Catholic Church in Steamboat Springs at 9 a.m. Friday.