Crash Probers Survey Air Show Jet Wreckage : Aviation: Pilot who died at El Toro is recalled as a gregarious entrepreneur who loved adventure, risks.


Investigators on Monday began to survey the wreckage and collect as many as 10 amateur and professional videotapes of Sunday’s fiery fatal crash at the El Toro Air Show but said it may be several months before they know the cause.

James A. Gregory, 40, the Florida stunt pilot killed while attempting a loop in front of a crowd of 500,000, was found out of his seat after the crash, said Gary Mucho, regional director of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident along with the Federal Aviation Administration.

It was unclear, Mucho said, whether Gregory had tried to use the ejection device when his dark blue F-86 Sabre jet failed to complete a 360-degree loop, pancaked onto the runway and burst into flames.


The remains of the F-86 were gathered Monday in a hangar at El Toro, where the investigators will try to piece together the wreckage. The cockpit sat on one platform, the tail on another, with the wings and piles of debris nearby on the floor.

As part of the investigation into the crash, Mucho said, there will be drug tests on the body, background checks on the pilot and the plane, an analysis of the wind conditions and close inspection of the videos “from every angle.”

Gregory, who flew his first solo flight on his 16th birthday and would have turned 41 today, was a gregarious entrepreneur who loved sports, adventure and risk, friends and family members said Monday.

After a career in aviation, the Navy veteran built a fortune with five Taco Bell restaurants and filled his days with sportfishing and aerobatics.

“He died doing what he loved to do,” said his wife of 10 years, Beth Gregory, from her parents’ home in North Carolina. “That’s how he enjoyed life, living on the edge. It was a thrill for him.”

Added his mother, Marie Gregory: “The only consolation is that he was doing what he enjoyed.”


Those who knew Gregory--who will be buried this weekend in Flint, Mich.--agree with local military and political officials who on Monday called the excitement of air shows worth their inherent danger. Sunday’s tragedy was the third fatality in the 43-year history of the El Toro Air Show.

“When a plane goes down, it’s something that is kind of shocking, but . . . you’d have to say that the safety factor is pretty high,” said Orange County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley. “(Air shows are) something pretty spectacular. It’s exciting to see this going on.”

Air Force Lt. Col. Steve Eivins, a Pentagon spokesman, praised air shows for helping the military flaunt its technology and skills, and for exhibiting amateur talent.

“There’s always a chance of an accident happening. You can drive in your car and have an accident and get killed,” said Eivins, a navigator who has participated in air shows himself and has attended the El Toro show. “No, it’s not worth the loss of life, but for these guys, it’s just like driving a car; they’re that experienced.”

Gregory, for one, had been airborne much of his life.

The eldest of four, James Alan Gregory was born in Flint and began building model airplanes at age 12. He got his student pilot’s license at 16 but began training a year before that. After the birth of his 5-year-old daughter, Laura, he had often flown--loops and all--with her on his lap, his wife said.

“He just loved the speed, always liked living on the edge, I guess,” said his father, Ernest Gregory, who taught James how to fly. “He loved airplanes.”


In addition to the Korean War-era fighter he died in, Gregory owned a World War II-vintage twin-engine Lockheed PV-1, a classic twin-engine Beech 18 and a two-seat Kitfox he built in his garage.

A diver and trumpet player through high school and Northern Michigan University, where he was graduated in 1974, Gregory had dreamed of attending the United States Naval Academy but never got the required congressional appointment.

Instead, he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps in his junior year of college and then spent three years flying jets at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. He left the Navy with the rank of ensign.

After a year dusting crops in Texas, Gregory went to work for Lockheed Corp. in North Carolina (where he met Beth on the beach), Nigeria and Germany. He returned to the United States six years ago and made his fortune, opening his first Taco Bell in Fernandina Beach, Fla.

“Not only was he a great boss, he’s a great friend; he was a great man,” said Robin Simmons, manager of that Taco Bell. “I couldn’t even say that he was my boss, he was more like a friend.”

He took his store managers on an annual outing: Last year it was a short cruise, this spring an Atlanta Braves game was on the schedule. If he was not out of town flying in air shows or visiting his other Taco Bells in Georgia and North Carolina, Gregory would show up to help during the busy lunch hour.


“He did not mind going into the Taco Bell and putting tacos together himself, and taking orders or running the register,” said attorney Clyde Davis, Gregory’s neighbor on tony Amelia Island. “He was a hands-on type of person.”

But his closest friends were those in the tight-knit group at the local airport, and he was well-known around town for his generosity: Just recently he donated a flying tour to a school raffle.

Though he owned flashy cars such as a Porsche and a Maserati, Gregory often drove his beat-up brown pickup truck, carrying a can to local filling stations to save money on fuel for his planes.

“He made himself a part of the community, he didn’t hold anything back in anything,” Davis said. “Here’s this Yankee from Michigan that comes down here, he’s ready to go mullet fishing, cast a net for shrimp. . . . There’s a few alligators out there, and he didn’t mind at all trying to catch an alligator.”

A member of the International Council of Air Shows, Gregory performed in the F-86 in North Carolina and Puerto Rico in the weeks before he died. Snow skiing was his newest love--he vacationed twice last winter in the mountains of Utah.

“Live fast, die young, what can you say?” said Richard Reid, a fellow flier who helped maintain Gregory’s planes. “He had fast airplanes, fast cars. . . . He was just wild and crazy.”


“We’re glad he lived the life that he wanted to lead,” added Ernest Gregory, who lost another son, David, in a 1976 motorcycle accident. “He lived probably more in the 40 years than a lot of people do in 60.”