Modesto-area family reeling after second plane crash takes another loved one

This is what NTSB does when it investigates plane crashes and other accidents

The National Transportation Safety Board, established in 1967, conducts independent investigations into all civil aviation accidents in the U.S. and major accidents in other modes of transportation.
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The National Transportation Safety Board, established in 1967, conducts independent investigations into all civil aviation accidents in the U.S. and major accidents in other modes of transportation.

The family of the Modesto-area pilot who crashed into Lake Tulloch after his single-engine airplane hit power lines Sunday have issued a statement expressing their appreciation for the prayers and support of friends but asked that their privacy be respected until arrangements for his services have been made.

“Our three boys and I are deeply grieving,” said Trent Johnson’s widow, Sarah Mesenhimer-Johnson, in a statement released late Tuesday afternoon through family friend and Modesto Councilman Bill Zoslocki. “Right now, we are dealing with a sudden and yet repeated tragedy.”

Mesenhimer-Johnson’s father, Dave Mesenhimer, died in a 2006 plane crash with former Modesto Irrigation District board chairman Chuck Billington near the Oakdale Airport. Mesenhimer was co-owner of the Modesto Flight Center.

“Never would we have imagined that the boys’ beloved father would be taken from us 13 years after their grandfather — my dad — died in the same manner,” Mesenhimer-Johnson said in the statement.

The statement said Trent Johnson had a passion for flying, had dreamed of being a pilot since he was a boy, and died on Father’s Day doing what gave him great joy.

Zoslocki, who also is a pilot, said the family would have no further comment at this time but confirmed that Johnson was 58 years old.

Authorities have said they believe they know who was flying the plane but have not released his name or confirmed that he died in the crash.

But witnesses have said the pilot did not surface after the airplane crashed into the lake nose first and quickly disappeared. No one else was believed to have been in the plane.

The accident happened about 11:40 a.m. Sunday near the Poker Flat area, a private, gated community along the lake that includes vacation homes. The lake is several miles northeast of Knights Ferry and straddles Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Department announced Monday afternoon the plane had been found about 110 feet below the lake’s surface and additional resources would be called in to recover it. A Sheriff’s Department spokesman did not return a Wednesday morning phone message, and the department has not issued a statement since Monday.

But Jack Cox, who lives in the Cooper Cove subdivision along the lake, said he was eating dinner about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Drifters Grill when he spotted rescue workers bringing the plane toward the shore. Cox said he joined a crowd of about a dozen bystanders who watched the effort.

He said divers attached what looked like a square bladder — roughly 10 feet by 12 feet — to the top of the plane and rescue workers inflated it. Cox said that once the plane was 60 feet below the lake’s surface, the pressure was low enough for divers to open the aircraft’s door and remove the pilot’s body.

Cox did not witness that but learned about it from talking with the divers and a sheriff’s deputy. Cox is a former Bay Area news reporter and said his instincts and training kicked in.

Cox said he saw rescue workers use the bladder along with a winch on a flat boat bring the airplane up and tow it to a boat launch. “This crew did a real professional job,” he said. “They brought it (the plane) up slowly to keep it intact.”

The aircraft is a Piper PA-11 and — according to Federal Aviation Administration records — was manufactured in 1948.

Johnson was a designer with Turlock-based Wilkey Industries, which designs, fabricates and installs “processing equipment in agricultural, industrial and manufacturing facilities,” according to its website.

Company owner Jack Wilkey said in a Monday interview that Johnson had planned to fly to Columbia Airport, which was holding its annual Father’s Day Fly-In that weekend, and would fly over Tulloch Lake on his return trip to the Modesto Airport. A Wilkey Industries’ employee was at his vacation home on the lake.

“He waved his wings, and then it happened,” Wilkey said, based on his employee’s account of the accident. The aircraft struck several power lines, causing an outage to more than 700 Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers.

The National Transportation Safety Board is the lead investigator in the fatal crash and will be assisted by the FAA and the engine and airframe manufacturers.

NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said in a Wednesday phone interview that his agency will issue a preliminary report within two weeks of Sunday’s accident. He said it can take 12 to 24 months to issue the final report, which will include the accident’s probable cause.

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Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.