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 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 11 a.m. Both were killed.
“They were coming in for a landing. We don’t know what happened yet but speculations are a wind pocket or something sent them nose-down before the runway,” said Happ’s son, Ryan Happ, in an interview with The Times. “My dad was always practicing these touch-and-gos. He’s done a lot of them. We’re wondering if he was on the controls or Gregg was.”
The Torrance Police and Fire departments responded to the scene around 11 a.m. Video from the scene showed the destroyed plane piled up just off the runway, with firetrucks and police cars parked nearby.
The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are leading the investigation into the crash.
“Aircraft crashed under unknown circumstances on short final,” the FAA said in its initial description of the crash.
The crash 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 of an event than a drive to the store.
“Back in the day we’d just fly over to Catalina just for breakfast or lunch,” Ryan Happ said.
Douglas Happ owned a hangar at the airport, formerly known as Torrance Municipal Airport, and spent time there every weekend. The pilot used to own a larger, six-passenger Cessna, but gave it up for the cheaper, smaller Arion Lightning.
While he was comfortable in the cockpit of the lighter plane, his family worried about the aircraft. Neither his son nor wife joined him in flights in the plane, which he owned for about a year and a half before the crash.
“It’s hard to put a finger on it. It was more of a feeling to all of us that this plane, it was a lot smaller than what he was used to. It was a single engine,” said his son. “It wasn’t something we were used to and we were nervous with him flying it.”
“I just didn’t feel comfortable with it,” said Marie Happ, Douglas’ wife of 52 years. “I didn’t like the way he sat in it.”
But the father of three and grandfather of two needed to be up in the air.
“To see him in a cockpit was the most amazing thing in the world. He just came alive when he did that,” said his daughter Jamie Happ.
Douglas Happ ran air traffic control as part of his duties in Vietnam and got his pilot’s license only after he was discharged in 1964, his family said. After Vietnam, he flew for the air cargo carrier Flying Tigers for 36 years, continuing on when the company was bought by FedEx. He was the chief pilot of the company’s Boeing 747 airplanes, his wife said.
“His passion was flying,” said Marie Happ, 75. “It was just a fun thing for him to fly around. It’s a light airplane, short flights. He was having fun with it.”
The city of Torrance has been operating the airport where the crash occurred 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 departing the same airport and crashing into a house 19 minutes later.
Since 2001, the number of fatal general aviation plane crashes has trended downward in the U.S. In 2020, the rate of fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours was 1.049, down from 1.274 two decades earlier.
The family of Gregg Low did not respond to requests for comment. His death was confirmed by the Los Angeles County coroner and the Happ family.