Fatal airplane crashes strike Modesto-area family twice in 13 years

The family of the Modesto-area pilot who crashed into Lake Tulloch on Sunday after hitting power lines issued a statement Tuesday expressing his passion for flying and their appreciation for the prayers and support of friends, but asked that their privacy be respected until the arrangements for his services are made.

“Our three boys and I are deeply grieving,” said Trent Johnson’s widow, Sarah Mesenhimer-Johnson, in a statement released through family friend and Modesto Councilman Bill Zoslocki. “Right now, we are dealing with a sudden and yet repeated tragedy.”

Mesenhimer-Johnson’s father, Dave Mesenhimer, died in a 2006 plane crash with former Modesto Irrigation District board chairman Chuck Billington near the Oakdale Airport. Mesenhimer was co-owner of the Modesto Flight Center.

“Never would we have imagined that the boys’ beloved father would be taken from us 13 years after their grandfather — my dad — died in the same manner,” Mesenhimer-Johnson said in the statement.

The statement said Trent Johnson had dreamed of being a pilot since he was a boy and that he died on Father’s Day doing what gave him great joy.

Zoslocki, who also is a pilot, said the family would have no further comment at this time.

Authorities have said they believe they know who was flying the plane but have not released his name or confirmed that he died in the crash.

But witnesses have said the pilot did not surface after the yellow, single-engine airplane crashed into the lake nose first and quickly disappeared. No one else was believed to have been in the plane.

Johnson’s employer confirmed to The Bee on Monday that Johnson was the pilot.

The accident happened about 11:40 a.m. Sunday near the Poker Flat area, a private, gated community along the lake that includes vacation homes. The lake is several miles northeast of Knights Ferry and straddles Calaveras and Tuolumne counties. It stores Stanislaus River water for the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts.

The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Department announced Monday afternoon that the plane had been found about 110 feet below the lake’s surface and additional resources would be called in to recover it.

Authorities had not issued an update as of Wednesday morning and a phone message left with Calvaras County Sheriff’s Department media spokesman was not immediately returned.

But Sacramento TV station Fox40 reported Tuesday afternoon that crews had recovered the airplane from the lake and, citing the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Department, the pilot’s body was inside.

Johnson was a designer with Turlock-based Wilkey Industries, which designs, fabricates and installs “processing equipment in agricultural, industrial and manufacturing facilities,” according to its website.

Company owner Jack Wilkey said in a Monday interview that Johnson had planned to fly to Columbia Airport, which was holding its annual Father’s Day Fly-In, and would fly over Tulloch Lake on his return trip to the Modesto Airport. Wilkey Industries’ salesman was at his vacation home on the lake.

“He waved his wings, and then it happened,” Wilkey said, based on his salesman’s account of the accident. The aircraft struck several power lines, causing an outage to more than 700 Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers.

The National Transportation Safety Board is the lead investigator in the fatal crash and will be assisted by the Federal Aviation Administration and the engine and airframe manufacturers.

NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said in a Wednesday phone interview that the plane is Piper PA-11.

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Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.