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Pilot dies in pursuit of dream


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 9, 2000

Joy Kear had a premonition two weeks ago that something terrible was about to happen to her second-born son, David.

In his 32 years, David Eachon had given his mother plenty to worry about. A licensed pilot by age 16, he had built and flown his own airplane by age 18, and once flew a mail route across desolate Alaskan countryside.

On Tuesday morning, Eachon was at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, testing a scaled-down replica of a British World War II fighter that he had designed and built over nine years.

His mother, who lives in Denver, had been unable to sleep or eat, fearing her son would crash and die in the Spitfire Mk 9.

"I was on the cell phone with her in Denver, giving her a blow-by-blow," Eachon's older brother, Michael, said Tuesday. "He came by us (on takeoff) and we were all cheering. As soon as the plane got off the ground and it shot straight up and flipped, we all started screaming."

All his mother could hear, Michael Eachon said, was her oldest son screaming, "Oh my God, oh my God," over and over.

"She said, "What's happening? What's happening?' And I said, "He's crashing.' "

For a few horrifying seconds, the tiny plane twirled in the air 200 feet above the runway. Then it fell like a rock to the ground, nose first.

"I jumped in my Jeep and rushed out there," Eachon said. "He was slumped over in his seat and his helmet had fallen off, but I thought at first he might not be dead."

Authorities removed the plane's tail section to reach David Eachon, but he was already dead. Paramedics told Michael Eachon that his brother probably died from a broken neck and felt little pain.

Stephen Eachon, the youngest of the three brothers, and his fiancee videotaped the crash. They gave the tape to Lakeland police, who will give it to National Transportation Safety Board investigators.

Tuesday was supposed to be a celebration, the culmination of David Eachon's life's work. Michael Eachon, a Tampa mortgage broker, said he brought cigars -- "my brother's only vice" -- to the airstrip to celebrate.

Since he was 16, airplanes were the center of David Eachon's universe. He never attended college, preferring to study planes on his own.

He led a daredevil existence. He once flew a mail route in Alaska so dangerous that, due to fears they might crash and run into polar bears, each pilot was equipped with a pistol loaded with a single bullet.

"Not for the bears," Eachon said. "For himself."

But for the past nine years, David Eachon had been back home in Tampa, designing, building and perfecting replicas of his dream machine, the British Spitfire. For nine years, he worked 16-hour days in a Drew Park warehouse.

"No one had ever put a Spitfire together before he did it," Eachon said. "He designed it from the ground up. He literally invented his own way."

In 1997, David Eachon completed his first Spitfire, a smaller version of the model that crashed Tuesday. After flying that plane successfully, he sold kits to other enthusiasts. Then he set to work on a larger, more powerful replica, five-eighths the size of the original.

Tuesday was to be the first flight of that plane.

On Monday, David Eachon told his brother that the tail of the Spitfire might need some work; it was too heavy.

"I asked what would happen if that was the problem and he took off," Eachon said. "He said the plane would go straight up, turn upside down and come right back down. That's exactly what happened."

Michael Eachon said his family, especially his mother, was devastated by the crash. But he's still glad his brother built the Spitfire.

"How many people have a dream in the first place?" Eachon said. "And of those that do, how many people fully immerse themselves in that dream?

"Dave said to me not long ago, "If the good Lord takes me, I want to go out flying.' He was doing what he wanted to do."

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