A crowd of 6,000 air-show spectators paused Sunday in a moment of silence as a blaze of four cherry-red Pitts Specials buzzed overhead in “Missing Man” formation, a memorial to the expert stunt pilot killed during the previous day’s aerobatics.
As the show continued Sunday, his widow and family made funeral arrangements for Richard (Rick) Fessenden, 47, a former Point Mugu Navy Base commander who earned his pilot’s license when he was 16.
Fessenden, a commercial airline pilot from Camarillo, was completing a series of tight turns Saturday afternoon at the 65th Annual Santa Paula Air Show when he failed to recover from a descent. Hidden from spectators by a line of tall trees, Fessenden’s experimental plane crashed into the bed of the Santa Clara River about a quarter of a mile from the grandstand at 3:10 p.m., officials said.
“In tribute to that pilot, we are going to dedicate this air show to Richard Fessenden,” air-show announcer Craig Andrews said Sunday. “He was one hell of a Navy pilot and one hell of a civil pilot.”
Santa Paula Airport Assn. board members considered canceling Sunday’s performances but decided instead that the show should go on as scheduled.
“We are here to put on an air show, and people are here to watch it,” said Mark Hanson, a commander with the Santa Paula police force and an air-show organizer. “The man went out doing what he loved to do. It was sad, but it happened.”
Federal Aviation Administration officials said Sunday it would take several months to investigate the accident. After gathering the facts of the case, the FAA will turn the information over to the National Transportation Safety Board, which will determine the cause.
“The FAA is investigating this crash because it was an experimental plane,” a spokesman said, referring to the aircraft that Fessenden was flying as a demonstration for a Santa Monica-based manufacturer.
Fessenden took off at about 3 p.m. in the custom 18-foot Berkut, a high-performance stunt aircraft, and was flying at low altitude when he failed to recover from a dip, authorities said. They found his body about 50 feet from the plane and he was pronounced dead within five minutes.
Howard Standard, a 47-year-old pilot from Oak View, said the plane flew near him shortly before it hit the ground.
“There was no noise coming from the engine,” he said. “I have no doubt the engine of the plane had stopped before the crash.”
Fessenden, who has flown the Berkut for several years, comes from a long line of pilots. His father flew for the Navy and his grandfather was a pilot with the U. S. Marine Corps.
“He was a walking aviation encyclopedia,” Fessenden’s widow, Judy Fessenden, said. “He knew every airplane and everything to do with aerodynamics. I think he could have flown a Concorde standing on his head.”
Judy Fessenden said she and their daughter, Sarah, 15, had enrolled in ground school and both had plans to earn their pilot’s licenses. Though she may put her own aviation training on hold, Judy Fessenden said her daughter will continue.
Fessenden, who was out of town during the air show, said she was stunned.
“Rick had over 4,000 flight hours and 600 aircraft carrier landings without ever scratching an airplane,” she said. “He was extremely safety conscious.”
Saturday’s accident was the 24th crash--and 11th related fatality--to occur at Santa Paula Airport since 1984.
Although she had not had time to review reports on Sunday, Judy Fessenden said she did not believe the airport, which has a troubled safety history, had anything to do with the accident.
Fessenden said her husband was so enamored of the Berkut, an arrow-shaped kit-plane that costs about $75,000 and can reach speeds up to 230 m.p.h., that he was building one himself.
“He was so enthused about this new, futuristic aircraft,” she said.
Rick Fessenden flew the Berkut in the prestigious Oshkosh Air Show in Wisconsin two weeks ago, where airplane buffs said he performed flawlessly. Richard Knapinski, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Assn., said he had never heard of a Berkut crashing.
“He had performed in that airplane for several years,” Knapinski said. “It was certainly not a new act.”
Fessenden was a Navy test and fighter pilot for 20 years before he retired in 1990 to fly commercial jets for American Airlines. He was the first pilot to fly the F-18 Hornet at the Naval Fighter Weapons School, known as Top Gun, at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego.
“He was top-notch,” said Point Mugu Navy Base spokeswoman Phillis Thrower. “He was one of the best pilots we’ve had.”
Jim Howell, one of the pilots in the flyby memorial, met Fessenden on the air-show circuit and the two had chatted just before Fessendentook off Saturday.
“I looked down at the riverbed,” said Howell, after taxiing back from the flyby. “I thought about him. . . . This was his life. At least he was doing something he enjoyed to do.”
Other friends remembered Fessenden on Sunday as a darkly handsome man who was full of life and loved spending time with his family.
“I’m just devastated,” said Linda Ottsen, a family friend and Ventura College voice teacher who coached Fessenden and his daughter. “He was such a great guy. This is such a shock and a really great loss.”
Fessenden grew up in Arcadia and met Judy at the University of the Pacific, where he majored in philosophy. Both Judy and Rick were involved in the university’s singing group. He continued singing with the Ventura County Master Chorale.
“He had a very powerful voice and was very serious about his music,” Ottsen said. “It was like an outlet for him.”
But friends and family said Fessenden especially loved the freedom he felt when he was airborne.
“He was an exceptional person,” said Keith Crenshaw, a retired naval flight officer who had known Fessenden for more than 15 years. “Probably the one thing that stuck out the most about him is that he just loved to fly.”
Fessenden is survived by his wife and daughter and his sons, Chris, 24, and Andrew, 20; his parents, Wyn and Tad Fessenden of Indian Wells, and three sisters.
Memorial services are planned for Wednesday at Camarillo United Methodist Church, 291 Anacapa Drive, Camarillo.
Instead of flowers, the family asks that contributions be sent to the Pleasant Valley School District Arts Foundation, 600 Temple Ave., Camarillo 93010, or to Easter Seals Preschool, 10730 Henderson Road, Ventura 93004.
Correspondent David R. Baker contributed to this story.