Pilot Killed in Crash at Santa Paula Air Show : Aviation: Stunt flier and former Navy pilot dies when jet smashes into riverbed during aerobatic routine.


A renowned daredevil and former U. S. Navy test pilot was killed Saturday when his stunt plane crashed after performing a spiraling maneuver at the 65th Annual Santa Paula Air Show.

Richard (Rick) Fessenden, 47, an experienced pilot and a former commander at Point Mugu Navy Base, was finishing an aerobatic performance when he failed to pull his fiberglass plane out of a series of spins and crashed a quarter of a mile from the grandstand, officials said.

“It was flying very low and went behind the trees and never came up,” said Alex Bajorquez, one of the estimated 6,000 spectators at the air show.


This was the 24th crash--and 11th related fatality--to occur at Santa Paula Airport since 1984, adding to the troubled safety history of the small airport.

Fessenden, a Camarillo resident who worked as a commercial pilot for American Airlines, was performing a series of tight aerobatic turns about 3:10 p.m. when the plane he was flying, a custom 18-foot jet called a Berkut, faded away and smashed into a sandy riverbed. His body was found about 50 feet from the plane and he was pronounced dead within five minutes, officials said.

Although the aerial maneuver places more than eight times the force of gravity on a pilot, it is relatively simple compared to the remainder of Fessenden’s routine. Some air-show enthusiasts who witnessed the event said they doubted that a pilot of Fessenden’s caliber could err on such a basic maneuver.

“He was considered so good he could fly as close to the ground as he wanted,” said Wayman Dunlap, editor of the Pacific Flyer Aviation News, who has known Fessenden for five years. “This guy was one of the world’s best pilots. I am at a loss to understand this.”

The cause of the crash was undetermined late Saturday and Federal Aviation Administration officials said they planned to investigate the accident, as they do all airplane crashes.

Fessenden had a long and distinguished career as a fighter and test pilot with the Navy before retiring in 1990 to fly commercial jets, Navy officials said.

He had three tours of duty at the Point Mugu Navy base, including as the executive officer of the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Four (VX-4), which tests missiles on the F-18 Hornet, the Navy’s leading fighter / attack jet. During his 20-year naval career, he logged more than 4,000 flight hours, 600 aircraft carrier landings, and was an exchange pilot with the German navy.

Fessenden also was the first pilot to fly the F-18 through the Naval Fighter Weapons School, known as Top Gun, at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego.

After leaving the Navy, he returned every year to fly at Point Mugu’s annual air show, and also flew at various other regional air shows, including the El Toro Air Show in Orange County.

“He was part of the Point Mugu family,” said Alan Alpers, the base’s chief spokesman. “He was really a nice guy--one of the people who you got to know really easily.

“He had a lot of friends here,” Alpers said. “There will be a lot of people shocked to hear what happened.”

Santa Paula Airport officials said the crash should not be considered an example of the safety record at the private airport, which does not have a control tower. They argued that fatalities are common at air shows and that daredevil pilots crash on occasion.

Bob Phelps, one of seven directors of the Santa Paula Airport Assn. and a coordinator of the air show, said the crash could have occurred anywhere.

“It doesn’t matter what airport it is,” said Phelps, who worked as an FAA official for nearly 50 years. “He was doing an abrupt and quick maneuver that the Berkut is famous for. . . . I thought the airplane was going to recover below the trees but it didn’t happen.”

Earlier this year, FAA spokesman Fred O’Donnell said the agency considers installing a tower each time it investigates a crash at Santa Paula. “In each case the conclusion has been that there’s not enough traffic to warrant it,” O’Donnell said. “We see the Santa Paula situation as a pilot education process. It’s not an air traffic control issue.”

The Berkut, the arrow-shaped kit-plane Fessenden was piloting, can fly at speeds of up to 230 m.p.h. and costs about $75,000. Fessenden had recently flown the Berkut, which means eagle in Russian, at an aviation convention in Wisconsin, according to Dunlap. He also flew the plane at the El Toro Air Show in April.

Aviation fans said Fessenden had single-handedly established the Berkut as a top stunt plane.

“He was an excellent test pilot,” said Ferd Kuhn, a 59-year-old air-show buff who drove in from Burbank to see the show. “He popularized the use of the Berkut.”

Fessenden was a member of the Ventura County Master Chorale, where he sang baritone. Lee Montemorra, the chorale’s administrative director, said Fessenden was with the choir for about six years and that she was devastated by the news of his passing.

“He was just one of those really nice guys,” she said. “He enjoyed singing so much. He really worked at making music and he loved it. . . . We will really miss him.”

Fessenden is survived by his wife, Judy, and three children. Judy Fessenden was out of town when the crash occurred and Fessenden’s teen-age son declined to comment Saturday night.

“We are going to sorely miss Rick,” said a fellow Navy pilot and close family friend who was at the Fessenden home Saturday evening but declined giving his name. “You have a wonderful family that is tragically caught up in losing a father and a husband.”

Meanwhile, the Santa Paula Air Show will go on as scheduled today from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a fly-by memorial at 1 p.m., said Craig Mailloux, the show’s chairman.

“I think the show should always go on,” said fellow pilot Paul Paulsen, 60. “It’s an age-old tradition in any show business, even if you have a sad thing happen.”

Times staff writer Kenneth Weiss contributed to this story.

* TROUBLED RECORD: Airfield not to blame in crash, officials say. B1