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Pilot killed in plane crash

by Andy Bourelle

For those who knew him, the death of Douglas County resident Thomas Jackson – who died last week when the vintage World War II-era plane he was flying crashed – came as shocking and unwelcome news.

“It’s devastating,” said Nancy Miluck, a resident of Genoa and friend of Jackson’s. “It’s crushing. He was really just a lovely young man.”

“We’re really going to miss a professional pilot in this area,” said Murray Alstott, also a Genoa resident and friend of Jackson’s. “He was extremely professional. It’s really a mystery how this happened.”

Jackson, 37, was flying his uncle Bernie Jackson’s rare British Spitfire, which had been housed at the Minden-Tahoe Airport for about eight months, when the plane crashed into a hillside near Lake Spaulding, about 30 miles from Truckee, Calif.

Jim Braswell, operations services director of the Minden-Tahoe Airport, said the airport staff and tenants were shocked.

“It was like doom and gloom around here the other day,” he said.

Jackson, a former pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, was flying from Chico, Calif., to Minden last Thursday. He reportedly was flying the propeller-driven plane in dense cloud cover.

The Civil Air Patrol heard an emergency distress signal about 1:30 p.m. Thursday, and a California Highway Patrol helicopter located the wreck later that afternoon and was able to verify Jackson had not survived the crash. Because of weather conditions, CHP was unable to retrieve Jackson’s body until about 1:30 p.m. on Friday.

Braswell said Jackson was an experienced pilot, and he felt the airplane was probably in good working condition.

“These things can happen when you fly,” Braswell said.

The Spitfire, built in 1945, was one of only a handful left in the world, according to reports.

Miluck said a common interest in the Spitfire is how she and her husband, Michael, first developed a friendship with Jackson and his uncle. Michael Miluck had been a Spitfire pilot in World War II, and a mutual friend had asked Bernie Jackson to fly over the Miluck’s house about eight months ago. Recognizing the familiar and unmistakable sound of the Spitfire’s Merlin 266 engine, Michael Miluck drove down to the Minden-Tahoe Airport to first meet Bernie and Thomas Jackson.

“There’s sort of a fraternity of people in love with the Spitfire,” Nancy Miluck said. “The Spitfire was really a symbol to a great many people, and they just had this rapport because of the common interest.”

Miluck said Jackson was considering going to work as a pilot for an airline but also “toying” with the idea of buying a small plane for acrobatics, suitable for competitions such as the Reno Air Races.

“He was full of energy, full of fun,” Miluck said. “It’s awful.”

Bernie Jackson, who also owns a Russian Yak airplane which also is housed at the Minden-Tahoe Airport, and his wife are away on an extended vacation. However, Miluck said they have been notified of the accident.

“I’m sure they were just totally devastated,” she said.

Alstott met him under similar circumstances to the Milucks” introduction. After hearing the familiar sound of the plane flying over Genoa, he drove to the airport to find a “young guy with long blond hair, in greasy overalls” climbing out of the rare plane.

“He was very low profile, almost shy, a real decent person, a real civil person,” Alstott said. “Bernie is the same way. They are very, very fine folks.”

Alstott and Jackson started talking about the plane, and Jackson provided him with information on it.

“(Spitfires) are like rare birds,” Alstott said. “He always maintained the engine himself. He was extremely talented.”

Alstott said the accident is especially shocking because of the abilities of the pilot.

“(People) are kind of used to tragedy and death. What bothers us all is when the top people go,” Alstott said. “What sets us back is when it happens to the people that are the best – like Tom Jackson, who flew F-18s, the same as the Blue Angels, for the Canadian air force. He was really multi-talented and professional. That’s what really bothers everybody.”

Although the specific plane was not used in World War II, the Spitfire was an instrumental tool for the allies.

“I’m not sure how many are left, but this was the plane that was actually instrumental in the Battle of Britain,” Alstott said. “They absolutely set the German air force back so severely, it put their invasion of England on the back burner – because of this plane.”

Bernie Jackson purchased the Spitfire in 1995, and the aircraft remained authentic, even having its original engine, according to reports.

Braswell said he remembered when a World War II “buff” had asked permission to take photos of the airplane. Instead, Jackson had offered to let the man sit in the plane, while Jackson took photographs of him with the vintage aircraft.

“That’s the kind of guy he was,” Braswell said. “He knew all the guys (at the airport) really well. (Tom and Bernie Jackson) were very well-liked and community-oriented people. Tom was a neat guy. He’s going to be missed.”

Alstott said he has a favorite memory he will always remember of Jackson.

“When he would return from a trip, he would cool down his plane by doing a few loops and rolls high over Genoa,” Alstott said. “He was very professional and very considerate, and he did it very high in the air. But he always treated us to that, to the music of that Merlin engine.”

The Record-Courier E-mail: rc@tahoe.com

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