The helicopter crash in dense fog that killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others last week in the hills above Los Angeles has a sad, familiar ring for me and perhaps some other Tracyites as well.
It was 36 years ago, on Jan. 12, 1984, that another aircraft, this time a private plane, crashed while taking off in dense low-lying fog at Tracy Municipal Airport.
The crash killed Tracy optometrist Bob Greenwood, 45; his wife, Marge, 44; and their daughter, Carrie, 23.
I remember the crash all too well. I stood near a bank of the Delta-Mendota Canal that foggy January morning to see the crumbled, burned wreckage of the Greenwood plane.
I turned my eyes away from any view of the victims, whom I had known all too well. A son, Brett, who was a senior at UC Santa Barbara and not in the plane, was the only family member remaining alive.
Earlier that foggy morning, I had received a phone call from Larry Smith, who had been taking photos for the Press as a freelancer. He said there had been a fatal crash at the airport and told me to arrive at the scene from Corral Hollow Road.
I didn’t know it was the Greenwoods until I arrived. When I was told, it was an emotional shock for me.
Friends told me Bob was scheduled to speak that day at a seminar on optometric office economics in Las Vegas and was anxious to get there in his own plane.
Despite the dense tule fog that morning, he decided to take off in an attempt to pop up through the low-lying fog layer into clear skies.
The plane never made it. There might have been engine trouble, but it was also believed that Bob, although a pilot for eight years with an instrument rating, became disoriented as he attempted to take off from the airport’s 8/26 east-west runway, heading west toward the Delta-Mendota Canal.
Lester Huck and his grandson Larry Griffith, who lived between the western edge of the airport and the canal, told San Joaquin County sheriff’s deputies they heard the plane take off shortly before 7:45 a.m.
“It sounded like it took off all right,” Huck said. “Then I couldn’t hear it anymore.”
His grandson said a minute or so after the plane took off, he heard the plane’s engine again.
“Then I heard the engine rev up and then a crash,” Griffith said.
As the low-flying plane, barely off the ground, continued west from the runway, it veered to the right to avoid utility poles, and the plane’s right wing tip struck the ground on the west side of the canal bank.
The plane, a four-passenger low-wing Piper Cherokee Arrow, spun into the ground 75 feet to the west of the Huck Ranch road leading from Corral Hollow Road.
Tracy rural firefighters reported finding the main part of the fuselage completely engulfed in flames when they arrived.
Sheriff’s deputies and investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration inspected the crash scene later in the day.
Funeral services for the three members of the Greenwood family were conducted four days after the crash at the First United Methodist Church. It was an emotional service.
The tragic death of three members of a well-known family was a shock to our town.
Dr. Robert L. “Bob” Greenwood, a native of El Centro, came to Tracy in 1964 after graduating from the UC Berkeley School of Optometry to begin 20 years of practicing optometry here. He had been a trustee of the Tracy Joint Union High School District for four years, from 1977 to 1981, and president of the Tracy Junior Chamber of Commerce and Tracy Rotary Club.
Margalyn “Marge” Greenwood, also from El Centro, had been president of the Tracy Republican Women’s Club and active in the Junior Women’s Club and arts programs. Daughter Carrie was a state employee in Sacramento.
The Tracy Press, in an editorial published four days after the accident, said, “The deaths of three of four members of an involved, energetic family engaged in many aspects of community life is a loss felt throughout the entire Tracy area.”
Fog is an unforgiving danger when it comes to flying aircraft. Los Angeles and the sports world have been dealing with its tragic impact for the past week — as Tracy was forced to do 36 years ago.