Cleared for takeoff: Aviator's friends give him a final farewell
Griffith Lisle Hoerner, a ringleader within the tightknit aviation community at Santa Monica Airport who died in a plane crash, is remembered for his exploits and generosity.
The Goodyear Blimp does a fly-over as hundreds of people gather at the Barker Hangar at the Santa Monica Airport to remember Griffith Lisle Hoerner, who died in a plane crash off Malibu in October. He was fondly called "Griff," and as an experienced pilot he was a beloved member of the aviation community. More photos >>> (Anne Cusack/ Los Angeles Times / November 2, 2008)
The aviation community at the Santa Monica Airport is tight-knit and quirky, peppered with a few people who dabble in private jets and the other trappings of wealth, but far more "salty dudes," as Hoerner's son, Alex, describes them.
Some are eccentrics who are obsessed with the history of flight. They sit around debating whether ancient Peruvians might have figured out how to fly hot-air balloons. Some are pilots who are like barnstormers, meant to fly around wearing goggles and fluttering scarves.
It is an insular world and, for much of the last five decades, a ruddy, bearded adventurer known as "Griff" was a ringleader.
He was rated to fly just about anything: fixed-wing airplanes, blimps, helicopters, all manner of gliders and sailplanes. Around the airport, there were few more talented pilots; while Hoerner was not a cowboy, everybody seemed to have a story about his exploits.
There was the time he flew below sea level in Death Valley. There were the U-turns he made, tight and confident, below the rims of the Malibu canyons. The time he landed a helicopter on the Santa Monica Pier, dressed as Santa Claus. Once, he banked so sharply over Santa Catalina to photograph a bison that his friends thought he might tumble out of the plane.
He seemed invincible; he was, said an acquaintance, like a combination of Willy Wonka and Indiana Jones. Then, one day in October, his plane tumbled into the ocean, just past the breakers in Malibu.
The afternoon of Oct. 7, Hoerner took off from Santa Monica Airport with an experienced flight student named Mark Walker.
They were riding in a lightweight, Italian-made plane called a Sky Arrow 600 Sport, which featured a single "push-prop" behind the cockpit. There were two seats; Walker was in front and Hoerner was in the back, investigators believe.
A few years ago, the plane would have been classified as experimental. But the classifications have changed; the aircraft was listed as a "light sport aircraft," which meant it was not built to standards as exacting as federal regulators expect of other aircraft.
Among other things, it had a three-point seat belt system instead of a sturdier five-point harness, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The plane was owned by a corporation that kept offices at the airport, and it was a popular rental for lessons. It was sleek and glassy; no one loved it more than Griff, said Randy Stein, 58, a friend for 20 years and one of his students for the last five.
"You always want to dance with the best-looking girl," Stein said.
For Hoerner, a good day was any day spent in the air, but he found flying over the ocean to be particularly captivating.
Even if his schedule called for him to fly east, toward the desert, he would first zip over the sea. Still, he told his longtime companion and former wife, Suzy Giambattista: "Nothing would be worse than the impact of the ocean."
"That is what he told me," she said. " 'Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.' "
Just after 5 p.m., the plane was off the coast of Malibu. It took a hard left turn, then plummeted into the sea.
Michael Dwyer, 47, an executive at Jakks Pacific, the Malibu-based toy maker, was in a meeting. He heard the guttural whine of an engine and looked up.
"I saw a plane going absolutely nose-first into the water," Dwyer said. "It hit like a huge bird, creating a huge splash. The wings popped right off."