Robert E. Guilford, 73; Aviation Lawyer Was an Accomplished Pilot

Times Staff Writer

Robert E. Guilford, a lawyer who specialized in aviation disaster cases, died Sunday when the vintage fighter jet he was flying crashed and exploded in Hillsboro, Ore., where he had taken part in an air show. He was 73.

Guilford, a Santa Monica resident who worked for the Los Angeles firm of Baum Hedlund, was piloting a Hawker Hunter MK-58, a British swept-wing warplane from the 1950s, which had been on display at the two-day Oregon International Airshow at Hillsboro Airport. Guilford had just taken off to return to California when the plane nosedived into a home about a mile east of the airport.

No one on the ground was injured, but the crash destroyed one house and caused a fire that damaged three others.

Witnesses told local media that Guilford appeared to be trying to avoid the homes and land in a nearby field. His son, Steve, speculated that his father attempted to minimize damage on the ground by not ejecting and staying with the plane.

The plane, which Guilford had owned for four years, had been inspected a few months ago by a former mechanic for the Royal Air Force, his son told The Times on Monday. He also said that the plane's ejection seat, which had the ability to eject at low altitude and low speed, had recently been overhauled.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident, the first in the 19-year history of the air show, but it is not expected to issue a report for several months.

Guilford was an experienced pilot with more than 4,000 hours in the air. In the 1960s he had helped found Warbirds of America, an organization that promotes the preservation and safe operation of vintage warplanes.

He was the only instructor authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to train pilots for the Hawker Hunter. He also was authorized to train on several other classic warplanes, including the F4U Corsair, one of the most admired combat planes in World War II, nicknamed "Whistling Death" by the Japanese because of its distinctive engine sound; the Skyraider, flown during the Vietnam War; and the P-51 Mustang, a highly effective World War II fighter.

His son said Guilford participated in about 10 air shows a year, and he described him as a conservative pilot who did not perform aerial acrobatics. In Oregon his plane was part of an exhibit on the ground.

In addition to the Hawker Hunter, Guilford had owned a series of combat planes, starting with a P-51 in 1963. He was flying a P-51 on Memorial Day weekend in 1989 when the engine failed and the plane crashed into a house near Santa Monica. Guilford broke both his legs, but no one on the ground was hurt. Both Guilford and the plane eventually took to the skies again.

"He loved planes more than just about anything in his life," said Paul Hedlund, a partner in Guilford's firm who knew him for more than 30 years.

Born in Cleveland, Guilford earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia in 1955 and his law degree from Harvard in 1958. After serving as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles for a year, he worked as an attorney for MCA Universal for several years. He later went into private practice.

He joined Baum Hedlund in 1992 and handled a number of high-profile cases, including the recently concluded case involving the 1998 crash in Griffith Park of a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter that killed three paramedics and a 12-year-old girl being flown to a hospital.

Guilford, who represented the paramedics' widows, sought damages from the manufacturer, Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., arguing that Bell had failed to report to the FAA previous instances of the tail rotor yoke failing on its aircraft.

According to Hedlund, Guilford was instrumental in the successful challenge of a federal statute that could have blocked the litigation of the case, which was settled three weeks ago for an undisclosed amount.

In addition to his son, Guilford is survived by his wife, Judy Fern, of Santa Monica; and a brother, Richard, of Orange.

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