Jim "Fang" Maroney's signature trick was a true crowd-pleaser.
The 59-year-old North Dakota pilot would fly his modified de Havilland "Super Chipmunk" propeller plane over the crowd – then slide back the cockpit's canopy, stand up in his seat poking his head and arms above the clear enclosure, and wave to the people whizzing by below.
Now, family and friends of the former "Top Gun" pilot and commander in the North Dakota Air National Guard are left wondering how such an adept pilot could have crashed in the Cherokee National Forest.
Maroney, a Casselton native, died Sunday when his plane – the same two-seater he performed death-defying tricks in for years – struck the side of a mountain just south of Knoxville, Tennessee, Forum News Service reports. He's survived by his wife, Susan, the publication says. The two lived in Milwaukee.
At this point, what led to the crash is all speculation.
One co-chairman of the Fargo AirSho, in which Maroney often performed, tells Forum the local community is "stumped" as to what happened. Another co-chairman, Dick Walstad, called the longtime pilot “very meticulous,” Forum reports.
“I flew with him once into a cloud, and he took the controls of the plane, swung it around, and dove down to the ground and got out of there in a hurry,” Walstad tells the paper. “So if it was cloudy skies, I think he would have gotten out of there. So, it’s just hard to say.”
Maroney had been flying solo since the early 1970s, his site says. He'd flown over a dozen different types of aircraft, from the small T2-C Buckeye made for carrier landings to the 380-passenger DC-10. And everywhere he got behind a control stick, he succeeded: He graduated first out of 1,500 pilots from Naval Flight Training; rated first at Naval Fighter Weapons School – Top Gun; joined the North Dakota Air National Guard in 1985, where he became a Squadron Commander then Group Commander; after 9/11 he was one of the pilots who patrolled the skies above Washington D.C. and New York; retired from the military in 2002 as a lieutenant colonel, and began flying commercial for Delta, where he became a chief pilot.
When Dick Walstad, a longtime friend of Maroney, heard the pilot's plane had gone missing, tells KVRR he wasn't concerned.
"First thought is, well, this must be a mistake. Jim is a smart pilot, he doesn't get in trouble," Walstad tells the station.
Maroney was scheduled to perform at a Florida air show this weekend with his "Super Chipmunk" plane. His aircraft departed from French Lick, Indiana, around noon Sunday, and went off the radar at about 1:30 p.m., Tennessee's The Daily Times reports. His family contacted authorities, WATE in Knoxville reports, and that night a report of a missing plane was sent to the Blount County Sheriff's Office.
Search crews were out from 9:30 p.m. until the early morning, and a distress signal was located in the Indian Boundary area of Cherokee National Forest, the Daily Times says. A Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter helped pinpoint the wreckage's location, and it was found Monday morning.
The downed plane is located in a wooded area not easily accessible by vehicle, WATE says. Helicopters lowered rescuers down to the crash site; they airlifted Maroney's remains out of the area, the station says. The wreckage will likely have to be airlifted out as well.
"It's on the north side of the mountain and the south side of the ridge it's pretty steep," Sgt. Tony Chamberlain with the Knox County Sheriff's Department tells WATE. "Unfortunately the mountains and the mountain ridges in East Tennessee are unforgiving if you're not used to them and we have several aircraft accidents a year around here."
Investigators will try to piece together what happened. For now, Maroney's friends and family have their own thoughts.
“He was the best pilot I ever flew with,” said Jeff Hanson, an Air Guard pilot alongside Maroney for 12 years tells Forum. “I can’t imagine what happened.”
Says Walstad, to KVRR: "I can't imagine pilot error will be an issue [in the crash]. Jim didn't make mistakes."