Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of a fatal plane crash near Desert Center that claimed the life of a 67-year-old pilot, with questions lingering about what exactly happened and why, which a federal report due to be released in the coming months may answer.
“Brent was very safety conscious,” Jan Stackhouse, wife of John Brent Stackhouse, told City News Service. “It was his lifetime dream to fly.”
On the evening of Nov. 25, 2019, Stackhouse was returning from a trip to Arizona, headed for Hemet-Ryan Airport, flying above Interstate 10 between Blythe and Desert Center, when his single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza encountered 35-40 mph winds preceding an intense rainstorm that would wallop Southern California on Thanksgiving.
While in contact with Los Angeles-based air traffic controllers, the Canyon Lake man stated that he was in the windstorm and intended to turn around to land at Blythe Municipal Airport. But in the process of reversing course, possibly due to the gusty conditions combined with restricted visibility, the 800-hour private pilot apparently lost control of the Bonanza, slamming into desert terrain a half-mile south of I-10.
He was killed on impact.
“The airplane struck at an angle, and the debris field was rather large — 270 feet,” Riverside County sheriff’s Capt. David Teets told CNS.
Teets, who commands the Colorado River Station, said the sheriff’s department, along with the U.S. Border Patrol, California Highway Patrol and Cal Fire received the same alert from the FAA when radar contact with Stackhouse’s plane was lost about 5:40 p.m. First responders were given approximate coordinates– latitude and longitude — of where the aircraft might have crashed.
Several motorists reported seeing a fireball, and deputies, CHP officers and others began a sweep along I-10, trying to pick out anything resembling a downed plane in the darkness.
Winds hampered the search, and Jan Stackhouse, who had received word from sheriff’s Sgt. Bill Fiebig that her husband’s Bonanza was missing, held out hope that he had made a forced landing to escape the inclement weather.
“They found him between 11 and 11:30 that night,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to accept it.”
According to Teets, the mangled, strewn wreckage made it immediately apparent “there was no way anybody was going to survive” the accident.
“It was a very violent plane crash,” he said. “It was a somber event.”
Along with his wife, Stackhouse left behind two adult children. Jan Stackhouse said her late husband was a man of strong faith, and both he and she believed that whatever might happen to them, flying or otherwise, it was in God’s hands.
“It was just his day,” she said. “That’s the only way for me to reconcile it.”
On Nov. 27, 2019, National Transportation Safety Board investigators reached the crash site and collected the remnants of the Bonanza, as well as surveyed the scene. Their preliminary findings offered no conclusions.
“The initial impact point was indicated by a crater about three feet deep, with ground scars similar in length to the wing leading edges,” according to the NTSB. “The airplane was heavily fragmented.”
The nose of the plane was on a southwest heading, suggesting Stackhouse might have lost control while in a turn to the east, toward Blythe.
“An unfamiliar situation can overwhelm you, even if you have a lot of hours in the same airplane,” Stackhouse’s longtime friend and former business partner Byron Pirolo of Big Bear told CNS.
Pirolo, a licensed pilot since his teens, used his own single-engine plane to fly him and Stackhouse to locations to scout real estate opportunities before the latter obtained his license.
“He probably ended up in visibility that was bad, and he didn’t make the switch to flying on instruments,” Pirolo said. “Maybe he thought he could see the roadway.”
Stackhouse did not hold an instrument rating, but his widow said he had ample night flying experience and was capable of handling challenges.
“Brent would have turned back and stayed the night in Tucson if he had known how severe the weather was,” Jan Stackhouse said. “I can’t blame anybody for the situation. It happened.”
According to NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson, the investigation is progressing, and a final report will likely be completed no later than summer 2021.
“The next step will be the release of the factual report, which signals that investigators have completed the fact-gathering for the case,” he said. “The final step in the process is the release of the analysis and probable cause.”
Whatever lessons may be learned from the fatal crash, Jan Stackhouse said she has no regrets about her late husband’s decision to fly, and the two shared many wonderful experiences aloft in the five years he was an aviator.
“Brent was doing what he loved to do,” she said.
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