STEVENS POINT – The pilot who died Sunday when his plane crashed during the Stevens Point Air Show was highly popular at his home airport and always willing to help others, its manager said.
Bill Cowden, 47, of Menomonie died Sunday when the 1993 YAK-55M Russian-made aerobatics plane he was flying crashed in the trees near the Green Circle Trail during a show at the Stevens Point airport, police said.
Cowden practiced aerobatics at the Menomonie Municipal Airport-Score Field in an air space dedicated to the activity. He was a key member of the airport, and was the life of the party, said Airport Manager Darrel Gibson.
“Bill was a big part of this aviation group,” Gibson said. “He was always willing to help someone out. He’s going to be missed by everyone.”
An experienced pilot
Cowden, who had been a pilot for 25 years, flew F-16s in the the U.S. Air Force and later became a commercial pilot for Delta Air Lines. He told a Stevens Point Journal Media reporter at Sunday’s airshow that he flew aerobatic planes because it rekindled the thrill he got from flying F-16s — one of the world’s fastest jets.
Cowden logged more than 10,000 hours of flight time, including 1,500 hours in an F-16. He trained as an airplane mechanic before training to fly F-16s.
He also was building a project airplane that he had nearly finished, Gibson said. Cowden is survived by his wife, Heather, and his son, Gunnar.
Stevens Point Pilots Association President Scott Rifleman said local pilots always looked forward to Cowden coming to town because of his expertise and his numerous stories. Cowden talked to several people in the Stevens Point area who were interested in joining the training program.
“He was a genuine guy, a really nice guy who loved flying,” Rifleman said. “He loved aerobatics and entertaining.”
Fellow aerobatics pilot Jeff Overby of Menomonie said he and his family considered Cowden one of their best friends, as well as a coach and a mentor.
Overby was with Cowden on Sunday and both flew their planes over Stevens Point Sunday morning, making smoked trails over the city to draw people to the airshow.
“He wasn’t a wild card, he wouldn’t come to town and try to perform a new trick, he’d just learned,” Overby said. “Our show was traditional.”
Cowden’s crash has sent shockwaves through the tight-knit aerobatics community, he said.
“I’ve heard from pilots coast to coast expressing their concern and sentiments,” Overby said.
Stopping the show
The crash happened near the Green Circle Trail in a wooded area about 1,000 feet east of the runway at the Stevens Point Municipal Airport, Stevens Point Police Sgt. Tony Babl said, confirming what witnesses on the scene said.
Airport officials shut down the airshow immediately after the crash. Numerous emergency vehicles — including those from the Stevens Point and Stockton fire departments, the Stevens Point Police Department and the Portage County Sheriff's Department — traveled to and from the scene of the crash, which occurred at the far end of the airfield, opposite from the terminal.
The Stevens Point Air Show, which is performed every other year, had expected a crowd estimated at 7,000 on Sunday. It’s unknown how many were present during the crash.
Witnesses to the crash said the plane had spiraled toward the ground, looped up, then crashed into the trees next to the airport's airfield.
Investigating the crash
Investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board officials are investigating the crash. The Portage County Coroner’s Office transported Cowden to Madison on Monday for an autopsy.
Eric Weiss, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said videos and photos of the crash “should play a key role in this case.”
The investigation is expected to take 12 to 18 months to complete, Weiss said, although a preliminary report will be available in seven to 10 days.
Gibson said Cowden had full certification in aerobatics, which allowed him to fly as close to the ground as possible.
During an interview with the Stevens Point Journal about two hours before the crash, Cowden said that aerobatics are risky and that a pilot needs to have good control over his airplane to perform the maneuvers.
“But once you get into this, you’ve usually got (a passion for aerobatics) pretty bad,” Cowden said. “It’s like an addiction.”
B.C. Kowalski can be reached at 715-345-2251. Find him on Twitter as @BCreporter. Reporter Sari Lesk contributed to this report.