The mid-morning crash of a single engine Challenger II CWS aircraft at the Oakdale Airport on Saturday, March 11 claimed the life of a 78-year-old Modesto pilot.
Leon Shaeffer was remembered by local resident Kevin Benziger as a friend and colleague.
“He was a great guy, always there to donate his time,” Benziger said of his fellow EAA, Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 90 member.
Shaeffer had been active in the local chapter, taking many youngsters up in the air during the various ‘Young Eagles’ and Open House celebrations at the Oakdale Airport.
“He flew hundreds of kids in our Young Eagles program,” Benziger said. “He was a longtime member of the chapter and he had been a pilot for about 40 years.”
The crash occurred around 10:30 a.m. Saturday. Witnesses reported seeing the plane heading east toward the airport, opposite the direction normally utilized for landing. The aircraft hit hard and then apparently went off the runway, striking a pick-up truck parked near a hangar at the western end of the airport. The plane and truck erupted in flames, sending thick black smoke skyward and prompting numerous 9-1-1 calls.
The truck was later determined to belong to Shaeffer.
Oakdale resident Alan Alcock was working in his hangar nearby when he heard the crash of the plane into the truck.
“It was engulfed in flames,” he said of seeing the plane and truck on fire as he came around the side of the hangar.
Earlier, Alcock said he had seen the pilot take off in the aircraft.
“I heard him take off about an hour before, he was buzzing around for a couple of times, and then he left the area,” Alcock said.
Several people working at a house on nearby Wren Road also saw the plane coming in and witnessed the incident.
“I just feel sorry for his family,” Johnny Freitas of Oakdale said, with the pilot a confirmed fatality on scene.
“It changes your perspective,” added Brian Szuggar, 14, also of Oakdale.
“It’s a very tragic event,” agreed Cameron Abicht.
Benziger said Shaeffer was still very active with the Young Eagles and the EAA Chapter locally, and loved to fly. He added that members of the local EAA Chapter are waiting for word from Shaeffer’s family regarding any services.
“We’re all dealing with it in our own way,” said Benziger. “There’s lot of theories out there (about the cause) but I don’t want to do any speculating.”
The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were brought in to take over the investigation. Initial response on Saturday included Oakdale Police, Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District units, Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department personnel and Oak Valley Ambulance crews.
The full investigation and report could take anywhere from a year to 18 months to be completed, officials said, though a preliminary cause of the crash could be determined in about a week.
Shaeffer had reportedly purchased the Challenger just a few months ago.
“He was a wonderful man,” Benziger said.