Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat

The Federal Aviation Administration visited San Andreas on Monday to examine the wreckage from Friday's plane crash that killed the 68-year-old pilot.

The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are in the preliminary stages of their investigation, which could take six to nine months to complete, according to NTSB Air Safety Investigator Tom Little.

Russell Hackler Sr., of Danville, was pronounced dead at the scene after crashing his Coot A-Amphibian about three-quarters of a mile south of the Calaveras County-Maury Rasmussen Field Airport about 3:42 p.m.

The wreckage of the experimental seaplane was found east of Highway 49 near Fourth Crossing Road, according to Sgt. Chris Hewitt, spokesman for the Calaveras County Sheriff's Office.

Hackler was the only occupant of the home-built, single-engine plane and was flying it for the fourth time since he purchased it, according to Kathie Hackler, his wife of 15 years.

He recently enlisted the help of professionals to work on the plane after having problems with landing gear during his flight about a month ago, and was testing out the repairs, his wife said.

While inbound to the airport, he was flying about 500 feet above the ground and preparing to put down the landing gear when something went wrong, she said.

The plane landed with the nose pointing upward so it appeared he managed to regain some altitude before the crash, Kathie Hackler said.

"Many of our pilot friends felt like something sent him into a non-recoverable spin and since he was so low … he didn't have enough altitude to recover," she said. "The forces of gravity were pulling (the plane) down quicker than it was gaining altitude."

Hackler had flown his Beechcraft Bonanza airplane to the San Andreas airport from the Bay Area, a trip he made about three or four times a week, according to Angels Camp airline pilot Robert Davids.

Hackler chose to fly his new seaplane in San Andreas because he had purchased it in Calaveras County and left it stationed there while restoring it.

He found out the plane was for sale from his friend who worked in aviation and lived in the county.

The victim's son, Russell Hackler Jr., of Livermore, flew a single-engine Cessna 172 up to the airport to spend the day with his father.

Hackler would not let his son join him in the seaplane until he had flown it more times, so he watched from the airport as the aircraft dove into the ground, Kathie Hackler said.

"His son got to see how much fun he was having with the plane and he said it was like a kid with a new toy," she said. "But then, unfortunately, he also witnessed his father's death."

Hackler was involved in a plane crash in 1991, the result of a mechanical failure. His family didn't find out he survived until the next day.

His son asked him if he would ever fly again and he replied, "If you crashed your car, would you stop driving?"

Hackler's interest in planes started while he serving in the Army but based at the Alameda Naval Air Station during the Vietnam War.

After being discharged from the service, the Missouri native used his G.I. Bill to take flying lessons. He'd racked up 40 years of experience and thousands of hours of flight time since then.

Hackler, who worked as a veterinarian for about 44 years, had been able to spend more time flying since he sold his Castro Valley practice in April.

He was doing transition work at Groveway Veterinary Hospital twice a week for the new owners and spending his newfound free time restoring and testing his seaplane.

Hackler's wife, three children and three grandchildren will have to wait several months to learn the cause of the crash, but Kathie Hackler has found some peace of mind knowing her husband lived a full and happy life.

While they were in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, a couple weeks ago having dinner and margaritas, Hackler leaned back in his chair and said if he had to die the next day, he was ready to go. He said he had a wonderful family and did everything he wanted to do.