Pilot of downed cargo plane also an accomplished engine mechanic

'A skilled aviator and a good man'

Posted: Friday, December 22, 2000

For longtime peninsula pilot Kearlee Wright, Jim Munson was a mechanic without peer, a skilled aviator and a good man.

Wright, along with many others in the close-knit aviation community on the central peninsula, reflected on the fate of two their own Thursday as news of the Everts Air Fuel crash trickled in.

Munson, 44, along with co-pilot Fletcher Machen, 33, are presumed dead after Everts' Curtiss C-46 Commando went down in a rugged, mountainous area just south of Mount Redoubt. The Kenai-based plane was returning to the peninsula after delivering a load of fuel to the village of Nondalton.

Wright was employed by now-defunct SouthCentral Air from 1981 until its closure in 1999 and worked with both men. He said Machen was one of the later employees to join SouthCentral, adding that the 33-year-old was an experienced pilot.

But Wright knew Munson the best. Munson was initially a mechanic for SouthCentral, then later took over the company as an owner.

As a mechanic, Wright said there are none better.

"I would trust him with my life," he said.

"He was there (at SouthCentral) when I got there," Wright said. "Jim was such a skilled mechanic -- it's hard to describe how good he was. He would come up with key repairs that would never fail. Nothing got by Jim."

Wright said although Munson was a skilled mechanic, he was eventually "bitten by the flying bug" a few years ago.

"I guess he decided it would be better to be flying than standing around in 20-degree weather turning bolts," said Wright, who at 43 has amassed 15,000 hours in the air. "And he was a good pilot. When he owned SouthCentral he would give me check rides, and it takes some time to accumulate that kind of experience. He worked at it."

Wright said Munson's attention to detail away from the mechanics of flying were just as sharp.

"I enjoyed working with him -- he was an outstanding fellow," Wright said. "I wouldn't put up with any crap. If I saw a safety matter that needed to be addressed, I pointed it out. And he was extremely supportive of that."

Wright said while most pilots are always eager to fly the sleeker, faster aircraft, Munson had a penchant for older planes like the C-46. Munson had about 1,000 hours in the C-46 and had qualified as a pilot-in-command of the plane in July.

"There was just something about those old World War II bombers with radial engines -- he couldn't get away from them," Wright said. "Most pilots want to fly jets and turboprops -- the fast planes. Not Jim. He talked about those older planes all the time."

Wright said he's made the flight in and out of Nondalton many times and said that finding the cause of the crash will take some time.

"You try to fly in a straight line when you make that flight," Wright said of the path from Kenai to the village near Lake Iliamna, about 130 miles to the southwest. "I don't know what happened. I think I'm going to hop in the plane and go over there and see for myself. It can be unforgiving up there."

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