Vicki Cruse knew of the perils of aerobatics, a sport requiring both the artistry of figure skating and the tenacity to endure pressures of up to nine times Earth's gravity.
"You can't fix it" if something goes wrong, the seasoned Santa Paula pilot told The Times in 2002 about the sport she excelled at and loved dearly. "You just try to be as safe as you can."
On Saturday, Cruse was competing for the U.S. national team at an international competition in central England when the unthinkable happened. Halfway through a four-minute program, Cruse, who was flying an Edge 540, entered into a maneuver and appeared unable to recover control. The plane went into a nose dive and crashed into the ground, killing her, U.S. team manager Norm DeWitt said in a phone interview from England.
Colleagues said Cruse's death came as a shock because she was a top-notch pilot bent on precision who practiced religiously and meticulously maintained her planes. Cruse, 40, was president of the International Aerobatic Club, a 2007 U.S. champion and a three-time veteran of the international competition, friends said.
"The people in the sport that are at the level she was, not only have a deep passion, but also try to pursue perfection," said DeWitt, who called Cruse an exceptional pilot. "She was loved by everybody in the sport. She will be greatly missed by all who knew her."
DeWitt said a mechanical failure in the plane appeared to have caused the accident, which occurred at a racing circuit in Northamptonshire, about 70 miles northwest of London. British police told the Associated Press that accident investigators were looking into the cause of the crash.
In aerobatic competitions, pilots fly a series of programs and are judged by a panel on the precision and technique of their maneuvers. The world championships are held every two years and draw pilots from around the world. Cruse was one of two women on the eight-member U.S. national team at the competition.
In Cruse's honor, members of the U.S. team will not be flying today, DeWitt said.
On Saturday, news of Cruse's death had reached her home base of Santa Paula Airport, where she kept her planes and practiced for competitions. Everyone who flew there knew and admired her, pilots there said.
Peter Poland, an aerobatic pilot who knew Cruse for more than 10 years, recalled how Cruse used to help other pilots by critiquing their maneuvers and giving talks on how to draw up an original program.
Cruse practiced daily in preparation for competitions, and had her planes inspected twice a year even though FAA rules require only one annual inspection, he said.
Cruse told The Times in 2002 that she fell in love with planes as a child in Springfield, Mo., where her engineer father took the family on plane rides to go fishing. She got her pilot's license when a fellow student at her college in Florida suggested she try flying.
Cruse, who friends said was not married and did not have children, ran a Santa Monica company that sold kit aircraft.