FARGO - Local pilots and Air Guard members mourned the loss of one of their own on Monday, stumped by what could have caused accomplished pilot Jim "Fang" Maroney to fatally crash his plane into a Tennessee mountain.
Maroney, a staple in the Fargo AirSho and former commander for the North Dakota Air National Guard, died in a crash late Sunday just south of Knoxville, Tenn., in the Cherokee National Forest. He was 59.
"He was the best pilot I ever flew with," said Jeff Hanson, who was an Air Guard pilot alongside Maroney for 12 years. "I'm still in shock. I can't imagine what happened."
Maroney, a Casselton native who was living with his wife, Susan, in Milwaukee, Wis., was flying his signature show plane - a 1956 de Havilland "Super Chipmunk" - to a Florida air show when the crash happened, said Dick Walstad, a co-chairman of the Fargo AirSho.
It appears Maroney flew into the side of a mountain in a heavily wooded area of Tennessee, Walstad said.
Darrol Schroeder, another AirSho co-chairman, said the local flying community was "stumped" why Maroney, who had 38 years of experience in air shows, crashed.
"He was very safety-conscious," Schroeder said. "I mean, he gave the safety briefings at all of our recent air shows. ... He was always so concerned about aviation safety."
Walstad said Maroney was a "very meticulous" pilot who avoided dumb mistakes. What could have caused the crash is "only speculation" at this point, he said.
"I flew with him once into a cloud, and he took the controls of the plane, swung it around, and dove down to the ground and got out of there in a hurry," Walstad said. "So if it was cloudy skies, I think he would have gotten out of there. So, it's just hard to say."
On Monday, crews were using helicopters to try and retrieve Maroney's body from the crash site, Walstad said.
As soon as his body is recovered, there will likely be a memorial service at the Fargo Air Museum, which could happen later this week, Walstad said.
'Great respect for Fang'
Maroney first sat behind the stick of an airplane when he was 4 years old. His father was a crop duster in Casselton after flying P-51 fighters during World War II. Schroeder grew up in Davenport, not too far from Maroney's boyhood home.
"He didn't have any traits that anybody got irritated with, just a wonderful person," Schroeder said. "And everybody respected him so much because of his abilities in the aviation world. We all had a great respect for Fang."
Maroney graduated first out of 1,500 pilots from the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., in 1981, according to his website.
In 1983, he was rated first at the Naval Fighter Weapons School in Miramar, Calif. He was transferred to the North Dakota Air National Guard "Happy Hooligans" in 1985, and became a squadron commander in 1997 and then a group commander in 2001.
Maroney, who was single at the time, would always volunteer to work the Christmas Day shift so other Guard members with wives and children could be home for the holiday, Hanson said.
"Anything for the Hooligans, he would do," Hanson said.
Alex Macdonald, former commander for the Happy Hooligans, remembered Maroney as both personable and professional.
"You couldn't ask for anyone better than he," Macdonald said. "I'm not saying he was better than everyone else, but he was certainly in the top percentile."
Hanson retired from the Air National Guard in 2000, and Maroney was set to do the same in 2001, having sold his house in Fargo.
"Then 9/11 happened," Hanson said. "And of course, he was the first one out there to volunteer."
Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Maroney was one of only four pilots who flew from Fargo to Washington, D.C., to patrol the skies near the Pentagon, the White House and New York, Walstad said.
"He said it was kind of eerie, flying across the United States, looking down at airports and they were full of airplanes, and they were the only guys in the sky," Walstad said.
Maroney did finally retire from the military in April 2002 with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and then started life as an airline pilot with Delta, working again alongside Hanson. He and his wife had no children, Walstad said.
He was recently promoted to be a chief pilot for Delta, Hanson said.
"They don't give that job to just any guy," he said.
The list of planes Maroney could fly was unmatched, Walstad said.
From the F-18s he landed on aircraft carriers while in the Marines, to the F-16s he flew during his run with the Happy Hooligans, to the 747s and 757s he flew at Delta, and the famous "Super Chipmunk" he became known for at air shows across the country.
"If it had wings, he's probably flown in it," Walstad said.
Hanson remembered Maroney as a total professional behind the stick of an aircraft. Even when the two would prepare for a leisurely ride in the "Super Chipmunk," Maroney would slow everything down to make sure every precaution was taken.
Maroney used to fly that two-seated "Super Chipmunk" from the back seat, even though all the gauges were in the front, Hanson said. Even with a front-seated passenger blocking his view of the dash, Maroney flew with ease.
"He was one of kind, I'll say that. That's for sure," Hanson said. "He was a character. He had a good time in life. But when it came to flying, he was all business and just the ultimate professional."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518