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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Dec. 6, 2023

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Dive team locates bodies of McKibbin, Mustain in Columbia River

Candelight vigil set for 6 p.m. Saturday at Pearson Field in Vancouver

By , Columbian staff writer, and
, Columbian Editor
5 Photos
John McKibbin's AT-6.
John McKibbin's AT-6. (Photo by Cliff Scrock) Photo Gallery

Divers with Clatsop County Search and Rescue on Friday discovered the bodies of two Vancouver residents involved in a plane crash in the Columbia River near Astoria, Ore.

The dive team also discovered John McKibbin’s aircraft, a North American AT-6A, broken into numerous pieces and scattered on the river bottom. 

 McKibbin, 69, and his passenger, Irene Mustain, 64, were found among the wreckage at about 1:30 p.m. Friday. McKibbin’s body was recovered. Mustain’s couldn’t be recovered due to the position of the fuselage and the damage it sustained. A news release from the sheriff’s office said her resting place was marked and she will be recovered once the proper equipment is available. 

“This was an extremely technical dive, and as sheriff I am grateful for the work these men did today, not only for the families who lost their loved ones but for our community as a whole,” Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin said in a news release.

“This was a large search area with approximately 2 feet of visibility at any point,” he stated. 

A candlelight vigil is planned at 6 p.m. Saturday at Pearson Field Historic Hangar, 101 East Reserve St., Vancouver. The McKibbin family will be in attendance. The public is asked to bring their own candles. 

Memorial mission

McKibbin and Mustain had been last seen at about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday when they took off from Pearson Field in Vancouver, said George Welsh, a pilot and friend who helped McKibbin restore the AT-6A he was piloting.

They were on a mission 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 River. Terry Mustain died in 2013; Wednesday would have been his 69th birthday.

It’s not yet known what went wrong. But shortly before 4 p.m., eyewitnesses saw the plane crash into the Columbia River about a mile north of Pier 39 in Astoria. Several rescue boats and a Coast Guard helicopter and Clatsop County Marine Patrol boats responded immediately, but weather and darkness forced the search off until the next day.

On Thursday, the sheriff’s office patrol boats scanned the river with sonar and discovered several anomalies in about 28 feet of water. 

Bergin said two marine patrol boats and eight divers were back in the water at 9 a.m. Friday and focused their efforts in an area where sonar showed a handful of uncharted objects.

The crash is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. 

The weather at the time of the crash appeared to be OK for flying, with a high overcast, winds of about 18 mph with some gusts, and occasional light showers.

The AT-6A was built in 1941 and was designed to train military pilots during World War II. It had been fully restored by McKibbin and Welsh, and was commonly displayed at Pearson and flown in support of veterans, such as at Clark County’s Veterans Day parade.

McKibbin was an experienced private pilot and one of Clark County’s best-known residents of the past four decades. He was a former Clark County commissioner, state legislator 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.

“John was an amazing community leader,” said Tom Mears, chairman of Identity Clark County.

McKibbin had lived in Clark County since 1969. He taught 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. 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 was married to Nancy McKibbin for more than 40 years.

Mustain was a member of the First Evangelical  Church in Vancouver for more than 20 years and just last week spoke to the congregation about the upcoming flight. Her pastor, Steve Briner, knew her and her husband and described them as “generous, thoughtful people.” 

The same was true of McKibbin.

“Somehow fittingly, John’s last act was one of selfless service to a widow of an Air Force veteran,” Mears said.

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