Updated Fri, Apr 18, 2014 10:18 am
"He took off, a beautiful flat take off, like military style, no wavering, just flat and perfect."
Kevin Wagner recalls that Saturday nearly two weeks ago, as he watched his father taking off in his private plane, headed for his farm in Glouster. It was the last time he he would see him alive.
On Saturday, April 5, they started their trip back from Florida where the two airplane devotees had spent a week together in Lakeland to attend an international fly-in and expo. They spent an extra day there because they wanted to make sure the weather was good for their flight back.
Kevin said it was a beautiful day, plenty of light, the perfect weather to fly. They made a first stop in Dublin, Georgia. Charles refueled his Bellanca 17-30A Super Viking, a classic plane; the wings are made of wood.
He didn't have to refuel, his son explained. "This plane carries so much fuel, we could have gone nonstop." But his father was all about safety and precaution, Kevin Wagner said.
Their second stop was Bristol in Tennessee. Kevin Wagner wanted to meet his family there, his wife, his two daughters and his father-in-law.
"I really wanted my dad to stay the night with us. He had been flying since 10 o'clock that morning," Kevin said.
But Charles didn't want to, he wanted to go back to his farm and take care of his sheep. Born in Westerville, Ohio, he grew up in Glouster and always dreamed about having a farm after his career as a pilot, his son explained.
Kevin said normally he would have pushed his father harder to stay overnight. But he was happy that Charles had spent a week with him, he didn't want to act like a 12-year-old who begged for one more day.
Charles refueled again, checked the plane and hugged his family. According to the flight plan, the flight to Ohio University's Gordon K. Bush Airport in Albany would take an hour and 20 minutes.
"He was supposed to be on the ground by 6.45 p.m.," Kevin Wagner said.
He and his family were having dinner when Charles' sister called. There was a crash, Kevin remembered her saying. Kevin either wasn't worried or wouldn't let himself consider the worst case scenario. He was confident in his father's abilities as a pilot.
"He was such a safety-conscious, by-the-book checklist pilot," Kevin said.
Charles Wagner graduated from Ohio University and became a Navy aviator then a commercial pilot for 31 years. His career as a pilot saw him searching for enemy subs in Vietnam, flying passengers jets for three different airlines and thwarting a hijacking. His father always loved flying, Kevin said.
Charles kept flying small private planes after he retired 14 years ago. Although he was 73-years-old, Kevin didn't doubt his father's ability to fly. "He was just as sharp as he ever was," Kevin said.
But by around 8 o'clock that evening the reality of the situation was beginning to sink in, they hadn't heard from Charles, the time of the crash was around the same time he was supposed to land in Ohio, and the family learned Charles' car was still in the parking lot.
"Even though there was no confirmation I allowed myself to own it at that moment," Kevin explained.
The next day he drove up to Glouster and went to the place where his father crashed. He had to see it with his own eyes, he said.
Kevin, who also learned how to fly, doesn't know what happened to his father in the air and he said we might never know.
But from what he saw at the crash site he thinks that his father knew he wouldn't make it to the runway and may have spotted a field where he could land.
But there would have been houses, trailers and power lines and Charles must have tried to pull the plane up again, perhaps in an effort to avoid the trailers, maybe the power lines, maybe both. Kevin believes this move took the speed that his father would have needed to land safely.
Kevin said the plane crashed upside-down. The cockpit was still intact when he saw it. But the impact broke Charles Wagner's neck. The official report on the crash could come out in six months and while it may provide answers it won't bring back Kevin's father; a man who loved to fly and died doing just that.