Sandy Mesenhimer remembers the moment so well.
Her husband, longtime Modesto flight instructor Dave Mesenhimer, died in a plane crash along with Modesto business owner Chuck Billington near Oakdale four years ago.
At their home that night, youngest daughter Jenny asked her mom and sister Sarah, "What are we going to do tomorrow?"
"People will come," Sara replied.
"What people?" Jenny asked.
"Our airport family," Sarah answered.
"They were all there at our house at 6 o'clock the next morning," Sandy Mesenhimer said.
Last week, the scenario played out again when they lost another member of their airport family -- businessman Chuck Swanson died Monday in a plane crash west of Angels Camp.
"We all did for Bonnie what they had done for us," Sandy Mesenhimer said, referring to Chuck Swanson's wife and her family.
They were there for the Swanson family to depend upon, there to help and comfort in any way they could.
Just as the airport general aviation community did four years ago for the Mesenhimers, they put on a dinner in the Commemorative Air Force Hangar 1-S at the Modesto Airport after Swanson's funeral Saturday afternoon. An all-balloon airplane hung from the ceiling amid the World War II and Korean War-era planes and other memorabilia on the hangar floor. It would be an upbeat remembrance focusing on Swanson's life, his personality, friendships and the joy he took in flying.
They're a tight bunch, these small-craft fliers. They share the common bond of what Modesto pilot and cropduster Dave Stein calls "the bug" -- the flying bug that becomes an obsession. They love their planes and they're quick to tell you that piloting a small aircraft is still safer than driving a car. There's less traffic in the friendly skies than on Highway 99, and airplanes are better maintained than most autos, they say.
"Airplanes have yearly and 100-hour inspections," said pilot Glenn Mount, adding that aircraft inspectors go through rigorous training and licensing. "Cars don't have that. You'll see 'em go years without maintenance, and you'll see people keep on driving them anyway, out in the middle of nowhere."
Federal Aviation Administration officials are still investigating what caused Swanson's crash, but those who knew him regarded him as one of the safest pilots around, along with being well liked.
"Chuck was such a conservative pilot," Mount said. "He always flew by the book."
A witness told investigators that the Cessna 172 Swanson flew that day circled for about 15 minutes before going down. If the plane had experienced a mechanical problem, Swanson no doubt would have made radio contact. He didn't. So his friends suspect the 59-year-old pilot suffered some kind of physical problem such as a heart attack or a stroke that rendered him unconscious or otherwise incapable of handling the plane.
Under such conditions, planes will go into into a "dead man's spin," said retired flier Martin Sigona.
"The spin gets tighter and the plane slows down," he said. "It starts to lose altitude and eventually goes down."
On the rare occurrence when one of their own meets with tragedy, they know it simply comes with the territory.
"No regrets," said Pat Titus who, at 67, has been a flight instructor in Modesto for 31 years. Flying is in their blood, she said.
So is being there for each other. Four years after her husband died, Sandy Mesenhimer still makes lunches three Saturdays a month for the folks who hang out at Hangar 1-S. They remain a big part of her life and always will.
And after Swanson died, Mount and his wife, Mary, went to see Bonnie Swanson, to be there, to offer help or just comfort.
"One of Bonnie's friends was there," Mount said. "Mary and I said we're part of her airport family. The woman teared up. She said, "I can't believe the camaraderie of the airport family."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.