Veteran pilot Wilbert “Skeets” Mehrer banked his 1960 Piper Comanche into a left turn while preparing to land at Grove Field in Camas last week, but instead of rolling out to level the wings and go straight, the airplane continued banking left until it crashed into a field, killing Mehrer, officials say.
“The witness reported that shortly after joining the downwind (part of Grove’s landing pattern), the accident airplane banked left,” says a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board. “The airplane continued in a descending left turn, until impacting up sloping terrain northeast of the airport.”
The report doesn’t address why that happened, though many pilots think Mehrer suffered a medical problem.
Dennis Hogenson, the NTSB investigator, said he had reached no conclusions about that and the full investigation will continue.
Mike Kanooth was in the air with Mehrer, in another plane, about 4:35 p.m. on Aug. 3. The two pilots were returning to Grove Field from a private airstrip between Hermiston and Pendleton, Ore., where the Comanche had been repaired.
“We had been in contact on the radio and he said the plane was flying just perfect,” Kanooth said Wednesday. “There were other airplanes in the pattern and they were all using Runway 25.”
That means a heading of 250 degrees, or westbound, while making final approach and landing. Pilots around Grove were making left turns as they entered the rectangular landing pattern, standard practice for Grove.
Mehrer’s plane was flying at about 2,000 feet above ground level as it entered the landing pattern, the NTSB preliminary report says. Grove’s pattern is 1,200 feet above ground level, Kanooth said.
“The last thing I heard him say is he was going to do the pattern,” Kanooth said.
Mehrer and the other nearby pilots were using Grove Field’s radio frequency, Kanooth said. He said Mehrer did not declare an emergency on the radio as he began banking left while descending to join the landing pattern.
“He rolled into that turn,” Kanooth said, but didn’t roll out to level the wings, “He rolled steeper instead of coming out of that turn.”
Several witnesses said Mehrer’s plane was “full throttle” when it crashed into a hill less than a mile northeast of the airport, just northeast of the Fern Prairie Market at Northeast 267th Avenue and 19th Street.
The plane barely missed two homes before crashing, witnesses said. One witness, Sherri Weiser, said it looked like the loudly approaching plane was going to hit her home, so she ran outside and felt the ground shake. She saw a piece of the plane’s tail in a hilly field and called 911.
Kanooth and some other pilots who use Grove Field think that Mehrer, 84 and a longtime pilot, suffered a sudden medical problem while banking left, possibly a heart attack or stroke.
Mehrer, known as Skeets to his many friends, was a collector of WWII-era planes.
“He owned approximately 15 planes,” said Jim Metzger, who operates a maintenance facility at Grove. “It’s believed he had the largest collection of World War II Stearman airplanes in the world.”
“It was kind of a little hidden treasure here in our area,” he said Wednesday.
Mehrer lived in Canby, Ore., and also owned five acres at Grove with two hangars and a mobile home.
Services will be at 12:30 p.m. Friday at Lincoln Memorial Park and Funeral Home in Portland.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland.