It was a routine flying day at Zamperini Field in Torrance for Douglas Happ, an 81-year-old retired pilot and Vietnam veteran.
He was doing touch-and-gos in his single-engine Arion Lightning with his friend Gregg Low, 59, with whom he was considering buying a plane. The duo flew for 18 minutes on Wednesday, circling the airport, landing and taking off again without stopping.
Then, on their fourth approach of the day to the airport, the pair crashed just off the runway around 11am. Both were killed.
“They were coming in for a landing. We don’t know what happened yet, but speculation is a pocket of wind or something stung them before the track,” Happ’s son, Ryan Happ, said in an interview with The Times. “My dad was always practicing these touch-and-gos. He did a lot. We wonder if he was in charge or if Gregg was.
Torrance Police and Fire Departments responded to the scene around 11 a.m. Video from the scene showed the destroyed aircraft stacked just off the runway, with fire engines and police cruisers parked nearby.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the accident.
“The aircraft crashed under unknown circumstances on short final,” the FAA said in its initial description of the accident.
The accident came as a shock to the Happs, who knew the family patriarch as the consummate pilot for whom a flight to Lake Tahoe was no more an event than a trip to the store.
“Back then, we would go to Catalina just for breakfast or lunch,” Ryan Happ said.
Happ owned a hangar at the airport, formerly known as Torrance Municipal Airport, and spent time there every weekend. The pilot previously owned a larger, six-passenger Cessna, but ditched it for the cheaper and smaller Arion Lightning.
While he was comfortable in the cockpit of the lighter plane, his family worried about the plane. Neither his son nor his wife joined him on flights in the plane he owned for about a year and a half before the crash.
“It’s hard to put your finger on it. It was more of a feeling for all of us that this plane was much smaller than what he was used to. It was a single engine,” his son said. “It wasn’t something we were used to and we were nervous for him to pilot it.”
“I just didn’t feel comfortable with it,” said Marie Happ, Douglas’s wife of 52 years. “I didn’t like the way he sat in it.”
But the father of three and grandfather of two had to be up in the air.
“Seeing him in a cockpit was the most amazing thing in the world. He just came alive when he did that,” his daughter Jamie Happ said.
Happ ran air traffic control as part of his duties in Vietnam and only obtained his pilot’s license after being discharged in 1964, his family said. After Vietnam, he flew for air cargo carrier Flying Tigers for 36 years, continuing when the company was acquired by FedEx. He was the chief pilot of the company’s Boeing 747 planes, his wife said.
“His passion was to fly,” said Marie Happ, 75. “It was just a fun thing for him to fly. It’s a light plane, short flights. He was having fun with it.”
The city of Torrance has operated the airport where the crash happened since 1958. Last year, another small plane crashed less than an hour after taking off from Zamperini Field, killing the pilot and seriously injuring another man. Another pilot died in 2019 after leaving the same airport and crashing into a house 19 minutes later.
Gregg Low’s family did not respond to requests for comment. His death was confirmed by the Los Angeles County Coroner and the Happ family.
Los Angeles Times