Family man, business owner and home-built aircraft enthusiast Steve Wilson, 57, of Grass Valley, was engaged in one of his life's passions Sunday afternoon when he crashed his plane outside of Nevada City.
"He died doing what he loved," said Wilson's daughter, Katie Wilson, 28. "He lived life to the fullest."
A preliminary report by the FAA outlining the cause of the crash will be available in a few weeks, Wilson's family reported Monday.
Wilson and his friend Gary Guilliat, 69, spent the past three years building Wilson's experimental Van's RV-7 plane. It was an exact duplicate of Guilliat's home-built plane, which he keeps at a hangar at the Nevada County Airport.
Wilson had logged 27.3 hours of test flight in his plane. After 40 hours, he would have been permitted to take a passenger along, said Guilliat, who is a retired airline captain.
"Home-built doesn't mean some guy makes it with broomsticks and cloth," Guilliat said. "That couldn't be farther from the truth. It is a highly regulated process."
Experimental planes are built by a factory, then disassembled, and advisors from the manufacturer periodically assist in the building process, he said.
The FAA inspected and approved Wilson's plane before he began logging his test flight hours, Guilliat said.
Nevada County Airport service worker Sherm Handley said he was listening to air traffic radio at about 4:50 p.m. Sunday when he heard Wilson tell dispatchers his plane's engine stopped and he couldn't get it to start again.
That could mean any number of things, including a malfunctioning engine or low fuel, Guilliat said. He and Handley both described Wilson as a "true gentleman."
"I can't tell you what went wrong," Guilliat said. "It could have been a fuel problem. I just don't know at this point."
Guilliat has built many experimental planes in his life, and he has no reason to believe they are any more dangerous than standard aircraft, he said.
Federal Aviation Administration investigators planned to remove Wilson's plane today from the crash site near Jacks Road, Guilliat said.
The rough, mountainous terrain of Nevada County most likely complicated Wilson's ability to land safely, Guilliat said.
"If you do loose an engine here, trees and rocks are bad places to land," he said. "In the valley, it would not have been a fatality. You need a grassy field. You can't land it in the trees."
Before he crashed, Wilson also told dispatchers he wanted to find a site to land where he would not impact any residences, Katie Wilson said. The plane did not hit any building upon impact.
Wilson had lived in Grass Valley since 1985 and owned Eagle Sales in Penn Valley, a pipe and irrigation equipment manufacturer.
In addition his love of flying, Wilson was also an avid golfer, his family said.
He leaves behind his wife Debbie, 52; daughters Katie Wilson, 28 and Melissa McIntyre, 30; and three grandchildren Morgan, 9, Cory, 5 and Alex, 2.
"He was a family man who loved his wife," Katie Wilson said. "He really loved his grandchildren.
"I'll miss him more than anything," Guilliat said.
To contact staff Writer Robyn Moormeister, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4236.