Contract divers and deputies on search boats recovered the body of a pilot from the cockpit of his single-engine plane at Tulloch Reservoir on Tuesday, and the Calaveras County coroner confirmed Wednesday the pilot was Trent F. Johnson, 58, of Modesto, the registered owner of the plane.
Johnson was the only person in the plane when the 63-year-old Piper PA-11 struck power lines and plunged into Tulloch Reservoir on Sunday. The National Transportation Safety Board is the lead agency investigating the crash.
The investigation will look at human, mechanical and environmental factors to determine a probable cause, a spokesperson for the NTSB said Wednesday. The investigation can take 12 to 24 months. A preliminary report is expected in late June or early July.
Sunday was the second time a Johnson family member died in a plane crash, his relatives said in a statement Tuesday through family friend Bill Zoslocki of the Modesto City Council. Johnson’s father-in-law, Dave Mesenhimer, was an experienced pilot and flight instructor who co-founded Modesto Flight Center in 1983. Mesenhimer was 61 when he died with another man in a plane crash in February 2006 in Oakdale.
Johnson had a passion for flying, Zoslocki said. Since he was little he’d dreamed of flying. He eventually earned his pilot's license and married into a family who also loved to fly. He died on Father's Day doing something that gave him great joy.
"Our three boys and I are deeply grieving," Johnson’s wife, Sarah Mesenhimer-Johnson said. “Right now we are dealing with a sudden and yet repeated tragedy. Never would we have imagined that the boys’ beloved father would be taken from us 13 years after their grandfather — my dad — died in the same manner.”
Details of a service for Johnson were being arranged.
According to people who knew Johnson, he was flying from Columbia Airport, where the Father’s Day Fly-In was underway, and he intended to fly over Tulloch Reservoir when the crash occurred. Witnesses said Johnson’s plane did a flyby and a wing-dip for people watching, then struck power lines and plummeted nose-first into the reservoir. Johnson was intending to fly to Modesto City-County Airport.
Emergency operators received more than a dozen 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. Divers and other searchers using sonar located the plane about noon Monday, 110 feet below the reservoir’s surface, near the Poker Flat area.
To recover the pilot’s body and the submerged aircraft, local law enforcement contracted divers to use air bags to lift the plane about halfway to the reservoir surface, removed the pilot’s body from the cockpit, hoisted the plane onto a barge, and brought it to a boat ramp near Drifters Marina & Grill. From there it was loaded onto a truck for transport.
The wrecked plane pulled from Tulloch reservoir on Tuesday is being stored at an undisclosed location for the NTSB and FAA investigations, said Lt. Anthony Eberhardt of the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office. Asked where the plane is Wednesday, Weiss with the NTSB said “t he evidence is in a secure location protected from the weather.”
Johnson’s Piper PA-11 had a valid certificate issued July 2012 through July 2021, according to Federal Aviation Administration records. 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.