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Sept. 21, 2021

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Columbia River plane crash claims 2 Vancouver residents

Pilot John McKibbin, friend Irene Mustain believed dead

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
4 Photos
County Commissioners John McKibbin and Connie Kearney at a meeting in 1979.
County Commissioners John McKibbin and Connie Kearney at a meeting in 1979. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

A trip to the mouth of the Columbia River meant to bring closure instead ended in tragedy.

Vancouver residents John McKibbin and Irene Mustain are presumed dead after an airplane believed to be McKibbin’s was seen crashing into the Columbia River near Astoria, Ore., just before 4 p.m. Wednesday. The two had planned to scatter the ashes of Mustain’s late husband, Terry Mustain, a Vietnam veteran of the Air Force and a pilot, near the mouth of the Columbia. Wednesday would have been Mustain’s 69th birthday.

McKibbin was a private pilot and one of Clark County’s best-known citizens of the past four decades. He is a former Clark County commissioner and real estate developer, with a long list of local civic duties, accomplishments and awards. Most recently he was head of Identity Clark County, a civic group.

Sheriff Tom Bergin of Clatsop County, Ore., confirmed the incident to The Columbian on Thursday.

“We believe it is Mr. McKibbin,” he said.

Irene Mustain’s death was confirmed by her eldest son, Michael Mustain, and her pastor, Steve Briner of the First Evangelical  Church in Vancouver.  According to Briner, Mustain was a member of the church for more than 20 years and just last week spoke to the congregation about the upcoming flight.

The two were last seen at about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday when they took off in McKibbin’s plane from Pearson Field in Vancouver, said George Welsh, a pilot and friend who helped McKibbin restore the antique plane he was piloting.

About 3:50 p.m., the U.S. Coast Guard received reports of a private plane crash landing in the Columbia River east of the Astoria-Megler Bridge, said Petty Officer 3rd Class Amanda Norcross, a Coast Guard spokeswoman in Seattle.

The cause of the crash is unclear. Bergin said the weather was “a little stormy” but overall a decent day. The National Weather Service reported the weather at the nearby Astoria airport was slightly overcast with very light precipitation and sustained winds of 17 mph with gusts of up to 28 mph. Visibility was four miles at around the time of the crash.

Although the wreckage has yet to be located, Bergin said the plane apparently went down near Pier 39 in the Columbia River in about 13 to 20 feet of water. The site is close to a shipping channel that is up to 90 feet deep.

Emergency responders from the sheriff’s office and the U.S. Coast Guard were on the scene within 10 minutes of the reported crash and searched until dusk with helicopters, a 47-foot lifeboat and smaller craft. They saw small patches of oil along the river’s surface, which Bergin said is indicative of an aircraft sitting somewhere under the water, but no debris was found.

Norcross said during sonar scans the sheriff’s office detected anomalies beneath the surface near the crash site, but further investigations proved them to be too small to match the description of the aircraft.

The search resumed Thursday morning at about 6:45 a.m. Divers were supposed to enter the river Thursday afternoon but didn’t because the conditions were too severe. Bergin said the sheer size of the Columbia, the water’s 2-foot maximum visibility, and a limited diving window during slack tide make the search very challenging.

“It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack, unfortunately,” he said.

Search resumes Friday

The Coast Guard suspended the search at about 4:15 p.m. Thursday due to hazardous conditions.

The sheriff’s office will have two boats with full crews out on the water Friday. Norcross said divers will try again to locate the aircraft, if sonar scans detect something.

McKibbin’s aircraft was a North American AT-6, built of polished aluminum and with the nose and tail painted red. The two-seater plane was based at Pearson Field and has been flown to honor military veterans. The aircraft is of a type used as a pilot training aircraft during World War II. More than 17,000 were built.

McKibbin, 69, has lived in Clark County since 1969. He taught contemporary world problems at Columbia River High School and was active in Democratic politics before winning a 49th District legislative seat in 1974. After serving two terms in the House, he was elected as a county commissioner in 1978, receiving nearly 71 percent of the vote. He left elected office in 1990 to work in real estate and development, and also served in numerous volunteer and leadership capacities for local organizations, including the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Clark County and Habitat for Humanity.

He has been married to Nancy McKibbin for more than 40 years.

Briner described the Mustains as kind people who were active in their church community.

About 12 years ago, Terry Mustain flew Briner and his son to Ukiah, Calif., for what turned out to be Briner’s last visit with his sick father. Both Vietnam Air Force vets, Terry and the pastor’s father had a good conversation.

“They were generous, thoughtful people,” he said.

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