The Geico Skytypers were performing a diamond formation during a practice flight Friday before a Virginia Beach, Va., air show when it was pilot Jan Wildbergh's moment to pitch high and left.
He didn't. He stayed straight, and his gray and white plane slammed into the ground. That's what Wildbergh's teammates said happened to Wildbergh, a 74-year-old Freeport resident who flew a World War II-era plane out of Republic Airport in Farmingdale.
"Jan just stayed level and went into the ground," said Larry Arken, flight leader of the Geico Skytypers. "It was just awful." The Geico Skytypers, who write messages in the sky, didn't perform that day at the Oceana Naval Air Station air show. Arken said he wanted the team, which is sponsored by Geico insurance, to "stand down" and clear their heads.
Holly Baker, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said that the National Transportation Safety Board will be the lead investigator of the crash. But the Geico pilots who landed at Republic Airport yesterday speculated that Wildbergh may have suffered from a sudden medical condition.
Wildbergh's wife, Rosemary, said Virginia officials had told her a "heart issue" had been ruled out as a cause of death. Wildbergh and his plane, a 1940 North American SNJ-2, were performing flawlessly, Arken said. Wildbergh's call-outs over the radio were clear. Then Plane No. 6 crashed. "It just doesn't make sense to us that the plane wasn't doing well," Arken said. Geigo Skytyper pilot Steve Salmirs said he was shocked by Wildbergh's death. "It's an empty feeling," Salmirs said.
At Wildbergh's home on Long Beach Avenue in Freeport, his wife of five months greeted Geico Skytyper team members with hugs. She said aviation was her husband's life. "Flying energized him," Rosemary Wildbergh said of her husband, a retired administrator at Kennedy Airport.
Wildbergh was born in Indonesia and flew with the Dutch air force. He came to the United States in 1959 to work as a carrier pilot flight instructor and later an FAA pilot examiner, according to the Skytypers Web site. Rosemary Wildbergh, 54, said she had dated her husband for seven years before they married in April. "I've never been so happy," she said. "We made people sick, we were so happy." Wildbergh had two grown children and six grandchildren.
His fellow pilots were like family, his wife said. "They were just here two weeks ago for a barbecue," Rosemary Wildbergh said. On Sept. 15, the Geico Skytypers are scheduled to perform at an air show in Brunswick, Maine. The team will perform a "Missing Man" routine in Wildbergh's memory, Arken said.
"He was a very beloved man," Arken said.
- Staff writer Reid J. Epstein contributed to this story.