Skeets Mehrer, 84, revered as a pilot and collector of World War II airplanes, died Wednesday afternoon when his 1960 Piper Comanche crashed in a field less than a mile northeast of Grove Field.
Jim Metzger, who operates a maintenance facility at Grove, said his belief is that Mehrer suffered a medical problem that caused the crash.
“I can tell you Skeets was an excellent pilot … and he would not have lost control of the airplane.”
Metzger said the Comanche (also called a PA-24-250) needed repairs from an earlier flight to Hermiston, Ore. Pilot Mike Kanooth of Washougal flew Mehrer on Wednesday to pick up the plane in Hermiston and they were flying back together.
Metzger said Mehrer was maneuvering near Grove, allowing another pilot to land. Kanooth also was in the air.
He said Mehrer owned 5 acres at the north end of Grove Field with two hangars and a mobile home. Mehrer’s residence was in Canby, Ore.
“He owned approximately 15 airplanes,” Metzger said. “It’s believed he had the largest collection of World War II Stearman airplanes in the world.”
His given name was Wilbert, but Metzger said everyone knew him as Skeets.
The plane went down about 4:40 p.m. northeast of the intersection of Northeast 267th Avenue and 19th Street, coming to rest on a small hill northeast of the Fern Prairie Market.
Aerial photos from Portland news helicopters showed the plane hit the field and skidded as it came to rest.
The area near the plane crash is full of homes on acreage.
A witness who saw the crash said the plane came in and nose-dived into the ground “at full throttle.”
“I don’t want to relive what I saw,” the man said. He wouldn’t give his name.
Larry Mills, 77, was inside his home just across the road from the crash site.
“It went right over the top of my place, full throttle, and two seconds later, I heard ‘boom,’ ” Mills said.
Sherri Weiser, who lives with her husband, Dave, near the crash scene, said she was in a bedroom when she heard the plane coming toward her.
“I just heard a super, super loud noise,” she said. “I looked out a window and I could just see the wings of a plane. I was pretty sure it was going to hit the house. I went to the front door to get out.”
“I could see him trying to turn. I came out the front door and felt the house shake, and the ground shake, like a small earthquake.”
She added: “I came around the other side of the house and I saw a piece of the tail. I called 911.”
She said a man and a boy went through the barb-wire fence to try and help, but it was too late.
“It’s so sad for the family,” she said.
The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate.
Wednesday’s crash was the second one in less than a month involving a plane from Grove Field. On July 5, pilot Steven Leigh Emerson of Camas hit a tree near Larch Mountain and landed in a gravel pit. He and a passenger were injured. Emerson told investigators he had just taken off from Grove Field and was flying low to stay out of the controlled airspace around Portland International Airport while awaiting permission to enter.
In 1995, Mehrer was featured in a story in The Columbian. A photograph showed him in a 1943-vintage Boeing Stearman.
“Everybody knew Skeets,” said pilot John McKibbin of Vancouver. “He was a huge supporter of the Pearson Air Museum since the beginning.”
Metzger of Grove Field noted that Mehrer had two airplanes on display at the Pearson museum and two more at the museum in Hood River, Ore.
McKibbin added that Mehrer owned a North American Aviation T-6 Texan World War II fighter trainer.
Mehrer also owned the Lickety Split racing team that competed in the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nev., each year. McKibbin said Mehrer had a pit crew of about 20, and a “fun meter” was always on display. “The fun meter was always off the chart,” McKibbin said. “Everybody loved this guy.”
Mark Bowder and Craig Brown contributed to this story.