'It does weigh on us': Warbird accidents stings region's aviation community
FARGO—A week before Mark Yaggie died in a crash of his vintage military plane just outside Moorhead, thoughts rolled through fellow pilot Casey Odegaard's mind about previous aircraft accidents.
In 2012, his father and veteran pilot Bob Odegaard died when the restored warbird he was flying crashed during practice for an air show in Valley City.
In 2007, renowned warbird restorer Gerry Beck was killed in a crash at an air show in Wisconsin.
"I was just thinking about that five-year cycle, just the possibility," Odegaard said.
Yaggie, 41, of Breckenridge, Minn., and a father of three boys, was flying his T-28 the evening of July 2 when he encountered trouble and crashed near the Moorhead airport.
Authorities are still trying to determine whether a mechanical or medical problem was to blame.
It was the second deadly small-plane crash in the area in a matter of days.
John Goerger, 44, of Barney, N.D., died when his crop sprayer slammed into a field in dense fog near Gwinner on June 29.
Yaggie was laid to rest at St. Mary's cemetery in Breckenridge on Monday, July 10. Pilots from the area and beyond flew their old war planes to the Wahpeton airport to pay their respects.
In a fitting tribute, four of the vintage aircraft performed an aerial salute over the burial procession—a P-51, two TBMs and a Corsair, flying in the missing man formation.
Tim "Toby" McPherson of Page, N.D., piloted the P-51, with Odegaard riding along.
"The meaning behind it is saying goodbye, the finality to his service, to his soul," McPherson said of Yaggie. "He's gone west."
Odegaard, 34, of Kindred, said while pilots try not to dwell on the risks of flying warbirds, the thoughts do creep in.
"It appears like we just mindlessly truck on, but I guarantee everyone's thinking about it constantly, and it does weigh on us," he said.
Losing aviation icons
Yaggie's death is the latest blow to the aviation and vintage aircraft community.
Whitney Beck and her mother, Cindy Schreiber-Beck, went through the agony of losing their father and husband.
Gerry Beck, 58, was piloting a P-51 Mustang he built from scratch when it crashed at the AirVenture show in Oshkosh.
Gerry and Cindy operated Tri-State Aviation in Wahpeton, a world-renowned restorer of vintage planes. Cindy continues to run the business.
July 27 will mark the 10-year anniversary of Gerry's death.
"You just never expect it to happen," Whitney Beck said. "You know it's dangerous in the back of your mind, but it doesn't feel that way watching them fly."
"Life has some strange twists and sometimes they're so final," Schreiber-Beck said.
Casey Odegaard was on the runway in Oshkosh that day in 2007 when Beck's plane clipped his. While Beck's plane flipped and burned, Odegaard walked away uninjured.
The National Transportation Safety Board later said Beck's restricted forward view prevented him from seeing the Odegaard plane. The board also cited reduced air and ground communications during the air show.
Odegaard still thinks about it.
"Like any traumatic event, you never get over it but you move on. That's what we tell ourselves anyway," he said.
He lost his own father to a similar fate on Sept. 7, 2012.
Bob Odegaard, 66, of Kindred, crashed while practicing an aerobatic maneuver in his restored Super Corsair prior to a Valley City air show. The NTSB said the plane was too low at an estimated 1,000 feet about the time of the maneuver.
Both losses were devastating to McPherson, who called Odegaard and Beck his best friends.
"I grew up under those guys," he said.
History mission, undeterred
The pilots, however, say they won't let fear keep them from their passion of restoring and flying the warbirds.
Jane Deckert of Peoria, Ill., traveled to Wahpeton with her pilot husband Brad in their restored TBM torpedo bomber. The TBM was part of the missing man formation that honored Yaggie.
She said once in a while she worries about her husband flying it.
"I don't like to make drama in my life and worry is just futile," she said.
Paul Ehlen, who piloted the Becks' Corsair in the flyover, echoed that sentiment.
"I think as a group, we do a pretty good job of leaving that worry on the ground and focusing on what we're supposed to do," Ehlen said.
The pilots say they certainly won't let the extra risks deter them from the mission connected to these flying national treasures-- reminding everyone of the important role the World War II planes had in the basic freedoms enjoyed today.
"We'll keep flying, we'll keep telling the story of honoring the veterans, preserving the history and educating the youth," McPherson said.
Odegaard said the most rewarding time he's had with the airplanes is when he shares them with veterans.
"Some of those experiences just can't be topped," he said.