The 63-year-old plane that struck power lines and plunged into Tulloch Reservoir on Sunday was registered to Trent F. Johnson, a Modesto resident and pilot who remains missing while Calaveras and Tuolumne county law enforcement work on raising the plane that lies 110 feet below the surface.
The Piper PA-11 single-engine had a valid certificate issued July 2012 through July 2021, according to Federal Aviation Administration records referenced Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board, the lead agency investigating the crash. The plane’s initial airworthiness date was Jan. 18, 1956.
Johnson’s private pilot certificate was issued May 5, 2010 and he was required to wear corrective lenses, according to FAA records.
The pilot was intending to fly into Modesto City-County Airport, said Thomas Reeves, a spokesperson for the airport, who emphasized he could not confirm Johnson’s identity. The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office, lead local agency on the crash, has not identified the pilot or confirmed whether the pilot is dead.
Emergency operators received 13 reports of a plane going into the reservoir between 11:39 a.m. and 12:07 p.m. Sunday, according to Calaveras County sheriff’s staff. The plane was located about noon Monday near the Poker Flat area.
To recover the submerged aircraft, local law enforcement has contracted divers who are specifically trained to dive to depths greater than 100 feet, Lt. Anthony Eberhardt with the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday. They plan to use air bags to lift the plane to the reservoir surface, and then hoist the plane onto a barge.
Tuolumne County has two boating division deputies on the reservoir maintaining a perimeter on the area of recovery and keeping other vessels out, so there is little water movement for the aircraft recovery teams, Sgt. Andrea Benson with Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday.
The pilot was flying from Columbia Airport, where the Father’s Day Fly-In was under way, and he intended to fly over Tulloch Reservoir when the crash occurred, Johnson’s employer told The Modesto Bee. Johnson worked for Wilkey Industries, which is based in Turlock, according to the company owner Jack Wilkey.
Witnesses and Wilkey said Johnson’s plane did a flyby and a wing-dip for people watching before striking power lines and plummeting nose-first into the reservoir.
Johnson was married, a family man, and it was a tragedy he died on Father’s Day, pilot Cameron Glynn, a class of 2017 Sonora High School graduate now based in Modesto, told CBS 13 Sacramento. Glynn flies out of Modesto City-County Airport.
The power lines Johnson’s plane struck were not marked, but pilots know they fly at their own risk in open air space over a reservoir, Glynn said, adding that flying into any object is considered a critical pilot error.
Dennis Calavan, a pilot based in Columbia, said Tuesday he thought he’d spoken to Johnson on Sunday at the Father’s Day Fly-In but he learned Tuesday morning he was mistaken. He said the power lines Johnson’s plane struck are well-known to pilots familiar with Tulloch Reservoir.
“I didn’t see him or speak to him, it was a different pilot I spoke to at the Fly-In,” Calavan said. “But I’ve flown that area on Tulloch before. You know about those lines, you look at them and you watch for them as you come around. He should have been familiar with it, he’s flown in that area before.”
Calavan said there’s a series of power lines, a group of lines, as many as five individual lines, and they’re not marked but maybe they should be. Power lines in other areas, like Altamont Pass, are marked, Calavan said.
“I feel bad for him and his family,” Calavan said. “That’s a sad thing he’ll never come home. It’s lucky there was nobody else.”
Benedict Stuth, the airport manager at Columbia Airport and an organizer of the Columbia Airport Father’s Day Fly-In, did not respond to calls for comment.
Outages from the plane striking power lines were reported from 11:41 a.m. Sunday onward, according to a Pacific Gas and Electric spokesperson. The outages and a shutoff for repairs affected more than 3,100 customers before power was restored before sundown Sunday.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.