The California man who died in a plane crash Aug. 19 while on his way to Madras for the total solar eclipse was an accomplished engineer in highly technical industries.
Mark Rich, 58, of Menlo Park, California, worked at Google, DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and Atheros, a semiconductor manufacturing company, before recently becoming vice president of Connected Fleet for Airbus.
Family and friends remembered Rich as a Renaissance man, who had many interests outside of work, including hiking, traveling and flying the single-engine Wheeler Express plane he built.
Menlo Park City School District board member Terry Thygesen, who had served on the board with Rich’s wife, Laura, said the late pilot was also someone who had a great sense of humor and was a devoted husband and father to his two children, Tyler and Michelle.
“Mark was an incredible person,” Thygesen said. “He was an engineer’s engineer in that he was so incredibly bright and inventive. He was the kind of person that you would want on your team.”
The crash is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, which released a preliminary report this week detailing the circumstances but no conclusions. A final report with an official cause is expected in about a year, according to safety board spokesman Keith Holloway.
“We don’t do preliminary causes,” Holloway said. “It could take 12 to 18 months for a final report. It’s still very early in their investigation.”
Rich was flying to Madras at a busy time. According to the initial report, Rich made a reservation at Madras Airport to arrive at 2 p.m. Aug. 19 and leave Aug. 21, the day of the total solar eclipse. He was planning to camp at the airport and participate in Oregon Solarfest, a gathering at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds celebrating the eclipse.
A total of 412 planes flew in and out of Madras Airport for the eclipse — the most ever at the airport. To handle the increased traffic, the airport brought in a temporary air traffic control service from Klamath Falls — a company called Aegis ATC.
In addition, each pilot flying to the airport was following a “Notice to Airmen” that instructed them how to safely land during this busy time, according to the safety board report.
For pilots like Rich, arriving from the south, the notice said to perform a “Cove Entry,” which required them to fly north over the Cove Palisades State Park toward Lake Simtustus Resort, then continue east to the airport.
According to the air traffic controller working at the temporary tower, Rich checked in above the Cove state park and was instructed to report his position when he was over the resort. After a few minutes, when other traffic departed the airport, the air traffic controller modified Rich’s approach, sending him to Runway 34.
Rich reported his position, but that was the last contact he made with air traffic control. Witnesses told the safety board investigator they saw the plane turn and nose dive into Willow Creek Canyon. The plane was destroyed.
“The controller cleared him to land and observed a plume of smoke shortly thereafter,” safety board investigator Zoe Keliher wrote in the report.
Keliher visited the crash scene on a slope of the canyon about one mile from the runway. In her report, she noted “freshly severed tree limbs adjacent to the main wreckage.” There was severe heat damage to the plane’s outboard right wing, tail section, engine and the mostly ashen remains of the fuselage.
“The cabin was completely consumed by fire,” she wrote.
Initially, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office reported two people had died in the crash. The confusion stemmed from a reservation tied to the plane, Sheriff Jim Adkins said. Because there was a reservation for two people to stay in the area, the sheriff’s office assumed two people were aboard.
Family friends say it was Rich’s daughter, Michelle, who had planned to go on the trip, but was unable to go.
Rich had built the plane decades ago, and would regularly take his family on trips, Thygesen said.
“He and Laura and the family took many trips on it over the years, and he was a very experienced and careful pilot,” Thygesen said.
A memorial service was held for Rich on Aug. 26 in California and featured a hike and a gathering at a beer garden.
Thygesen said Rich made and kept many close friends over the years, and they all traveled from around the world to be at the service. From friends he met growing up in the Midwest to numerous colleagues he worked with, they all shared their favorite stories about Rich.
“We still can’t believe he is gone,” Thygesen said. “It’s hard to believe.”
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