A Danville pilot was killed Friday afternoon when the plane he was flying crashed just southeast of the Calaveras County Airport.
Dr. Russell Hackler, 68, was flying toward the airport when his Coot A-Amphibian crashed on a hillside almost a mile from the runway. The crash was reported around 3:45 p.m. Hackler was the only person on board.
The first emergency crews on scene came from the San Andreas Fire Protection District. Chief Don Young said the aircraft was destroyed.
“It was probably one of the worst I’ve seen,” Young said Monday. He added that there were reports circulating around the scene that there was some kind of explosion before the crash, “but I couldn’t verify that.”
He added that he saw no evidence of flames or burning at the site.
Battalion Chief Ed Ritter with Altaville-Melones Fire Protection District, which took over the scene because the crash happened south of Fourth Crossing, said he couldn’t find any sign of fire either.
Kathie Hackler, Russell’s wife, said he and his son, Russell Winston Hackler Jr., who goes by Winston and is also a pilot, flew into Maury Rasmussen Field separately to work on the aircraft that Russell recently purchased. She said her husband – who turned 68 at the end of October – had accumulated thousands of hours in the cockpit of a Bonanza aircraft he had flown to Calaveras earlier in the day. He purchased the Coot because he thought it would be fun to fly the amphibious craft to Don Pedro Reservoir, where the family has a houseboat.
“Winston said his dad was acting like a kid,” Kathie said of the elder Hackler’s enthusiasm for his new aircraft. Family members have watched some video footage Winston shot earlier in the day. “He gave a thumbs up once when they had the cowling off,” she said.
Hackler made at least three short flights around the airport in the pattern earlier Friday and took a fourth hop to double-check the stability of the aircraft with the landing gear down. He planned to make a flight over the runway to do so and Kathie Hackler said that as he made his final turn toward the runway witnesses saw the plane spiral into an uncontrollable stall. She said she was told the aircraft’s nose wasn’t the first thing to hit the ground, which she felt further indicated the aircraft was stalling.
Airport Manager Kathy Zancanella said witnesses told her it appeared as though the plane’s wings might have detached.
“He loved to fly that plane,” Zancanella said of Hackler.
The Coot experimental homebuilt aircraft was built of wood and had a fiberglass skin. It shattered on impact.
“The wreckage was crumpled,” Ritter said.
Calaveras County Coroner Kevin Raggio said it did not appear that anything happened to Hackler before the crash, noting the cause of death would most likely be multiple traumatic injuries.
Zancanella said she expected Federal Aviation Administration officials at the airport Tuesday to examine the wreckage.
Russell Hackler was a veterinarian for 44 years who owned the Grove Way Veterinary Hospital in Castro Valley. Kathie said he recently sold the practice and was looking forward to retirement. Along with Kathie and Winston, Mr. Hackler leaves a daughter, Teresa Digler and grandchildren Dillon and Amanda of Pleasanton, and daughter Tara Hackler of Bend, Ore.
Kathie said that on vacation just a couple of weeks ago, Russell Hackler had said he felt his life had gone well.
“He said he had a great life and if he checked out tomorrow, he’d be OK,” Kathie said Monday.
Russell is remembered by many people on websites where news of his passing was posted. People remember a kind and giving man who inspired others to pursue veterinary medicine and shared his time with 4-H groups.
Margaret Johnson Meighan posted: “He taught me well, to always show compassion and dignity to the animals and their owners.”
“Thank you all for your wonderful comments and remembrances of Russ,” Kathie posted. “He leaves a hole in our hearts that will never quite heal, but your posts have both humbled and provided incredible support to me and the family. He loved being a veterinarian; he loved teaching new vets and helping clients. So many clients became friends. He lived life to the fullest.”