A double-sided picture frame in Kevin Wagner's Atlanta home says all that needs to be said about his father. On the left side is a photo of Kevin, standing on the back of his dad's orange tractor, a John Deere cap on his head and his hand on the wheel.
A double-sided picture frame in Kevin Wagner’s Atlanta home says all that needs to be said about his father.
On the left side is a photo of Kevin, standing on the back of his dad’s orange tractor, a John Deere cap on his head and his hand on the wheel.
On the right side is a photo of Charles Wagner with his hand on the yoke of a Boeing 727 airliner.
“He was equally comfortable in a field shearing 200 sheep, which he just did just a couple of months ago, as flying a 747,” Kevin said. “He’s the greatest man I’ve ever known.”
Charles Wagner died Saturday evening when his single-engine plane crashed near a quarry only a few hundred yards from the runway at the Ohio University airport near his home in Glouster.
In 73 years, Wagner lived a life of high-flying adventure, including taking ground fire as a Navy pilot in Vietnam and once thwarting a hijacking attempt while he was a commercial pilot.
Barely an hour before the crash, the elder Wagner had dropped off his son at the Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tenn., hugged his two granddaughters, and headed home to his 400-acre family farm, about 15 miles north of Athens.
Kevin and his dad had spent the previous five days at the Sun ’n Fun air show in Lakeland, Fla.
After growing up on the family farm in Glouster, Charles Wagner took his first solo flight from an airstrip in Athens that since has been replaced by a Walmart.
He attended Ohio University before rising to the rank of lieutenant commander in the Navy while fighting in Vietnam, piloting a P-3 Orion over the South China Sea to drop sonar buoys searching for enemy subs.
Wagner then became a commercial airline pilot for 31 years, first with National Airlines in Miami, which was taken over by Pan American in 1980, and then with Delta. He retired in 2000 and moved back to the farm.
In the 1970s, Kevin said, a man with a Mason jar full of acid demanded that Wagner fly a National jet to Cuba.
“Dad put the plane into a steep bank. The high g(-force) load threw the hijacker down. He was subdued, and Dad landed in Alabama. Dad said some Buford Pusser-like sheriff got on the plane, pistol-whipped the guy once and carried him away.”
In retirement, he owned two classic planes: a 1972 Bellanca Super Viking 17-30A and a 1946 Aeronca 7AC.
The Bellanca, which Wagner was piloting when he crashed, is a sleek four-seater, said Robert Szego, president of the Bellanca-Champion Club. It’s “very powerful, very fast, very pretty and really fun to fly.”
The Aeronca is an older, slower twin-seater.
A National Transportation Safety Board spokesman said it likely will be six months to a year before a final report is issued on the cause of Wagner’s crash.
Kevin Wagner doesn’t need to wait. He visited the crash site, saw his dad’s beige and red Bellanca upside down on the ground, its spruce and mahogany wings sheared off.
“The landing gear was down. He was on his final approach. He’d already flown 31/2 hours, and now he was five minutes from home.”
He thinks his father had some sort of engine trouble. “There were a couple of houses there, mobile homes. He saw the quarry there and was trying desperately to make it. He clipped a tree."
A woman at one of the mobile homes witnessed the crash.
“She told me that he veered up — those were her words — to avoid hitting the trailer, and clipped the other set of trees and nose-dived into the quarry,” said Kevin, who is also a pilot.
“The cockpit and the fuselage were completely intact. It didn’t crush. What killed him was the force of hitting the ground. It simply broke his neck. The yoke broke off in his hands. He was fighting it to the last second.”