By LENORE RUTHERFORD
When the tiny, Indian-born woman who called herself "K.C." approached Karen and Rob Davids for seaplane lessons in 1994, they knew she worked for NASA.
The Angels Camp couple kept seaplanes at Cherokee Reservoir, known as Spence's Pond, off Highway 4 a place K.C. enjoyed.
"She loved coming (to Calaveras County)," Karen Davids, 43, said. "She thought (Cherokee Reservoir) was a spiritual place, and she loved going there."
After a three-day course, the already advanced pilot returned to the foothills several times to rent seaplanes for fun.
But it wasn't until three years later the Davids found out their friend Kalpana Chawla was an astronaut when she sent them a picture of her in her NASA uniform, and an invitation to watch her first space shuttle launch.
"She was just a very sweet, humble, neat person who was brilliant and a very good pilot," Karen Davids said.
As the nation mourns the death of seven astronauts in the Saturday morning disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia, the Davids family mourns the loss of a friend.
Mission Specialist Chawla, 41, died Saturday, along with the other six crew members of Columbia, as it broke apart over Texas on its way home to Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Chawla met the Davids family in 1994 the same year NASA accepted her into its astronaut program.
Rob and Karen Davids owned and operated Norcal Aviation at the Calaveras County Airport from 1989 to 1999, and Chawla, who lived in the Bay Area at the time, asked to fly their seaplanes.
"Only a handful of people offered seaplane training at the time," Karen Davids said, "so we became known worldwide. We got the opportunity to meet people from all over the world that we wouldn't ordinarily meet."
In 1998, Chawla asked for more training. This time she wanted to learn to fly multi-engine seaplanes.
Chawla's mother told CNN this weekend that while other girls drew pictures of animals and families, little Kalpana drew airplanes. It's not surprising she wanted to learn to fly everything she could.
Each time Chawla came to Calaveras County, she visited the Davids family. She brought baby presents when the Davids' son, Zack, was born and had her picture taken with both of their children.
In 1997, Chawla invited the Davids to watch her leave for space on the shuttle. She was going to help research the effects of weightlessness, study the sun's outer atmosphere and retrieve a satellite.
Karen, Rob and their daughter, Amanda, had to go.
"It was almost a spiritual experience to be there as a member of an astronaut's family and friends," Karen Davids said.
Chawla asked if she could take something from their business on the mission. They had a flag made for the occasion, and it is still displayed at the Calaveras County Airport with a certificate of authenticity and Chawla's autographed picture.
Now a pilot for United Airlines and a Federal Aviation Administration-designated pilot examiner, Rob Davids, 41, sold the business in 1999 so Karen, now a homemaker and freelance writer, could spend more time at home with Zack, now 4, and Amanda, 17.
But they stayed in touch with Chawla, and were even invited to attend the last Columbia launch. It was Chawla's second shuttle flight, and she was excited.
She told CNN before the mission began that people in other countries see NASA's program as "totally awe inspiring," and see some of this country's accomplishments as "magnificent."
The launch was originally scheduled for July 12, 2002.
"We had our hotel reservations and airline tickets," Karen Davids said, "but the launch was postponed indefinitely."
When NASA finally rescheduled the 16-day shuttle mission, a new invitation came a couple weeks before the mid-January date. It was almost Christmas, the weather was unsettled and the Davids decided to decline.
The last time they spoke to Chawla on the telephone was mid-January, about a week before she left on her second, and unexpectedly final, mission.
They were also invited to Saturday's scheduled landing.
Their most recent invitation came by e-mail, detailing landing events.
"It's still on my computer," Karen Davids said.
They learned of the disaster when a friend of Amanda's who knew they were supposed to attend saw the news on television and called.
"Amanda told me, and we turned on CNN, which confirmed it," she said. "It was such a shock. It's horrible.
"But it is also really neat that an astronaut touched our lives right here in Calaveras County.
"She was a really, really neat person, and so spiritual a Gandhi type of person."