Sheila Jenkins remembers her dad, Rick Gustafson, as a man who loved his Harley and the Miami Dolphins, loved cooking and golfing, and loved adventure. "Roller coasters, skydiving, you name it," Jenkins said. On March 1, Gustafson was on one of his adventures -- flying across the country with his pilot friend Vladislav Milushev -- when something (fierce winds? malfunctioning equipment? human error?) sent their tiny aircraft plunging into the cold, turbulent ocean near Trinidad Head. While there may be some solace in knowing her dad died doing what he loved, Jenkins can't quite come to terms with it, partly because his body hasn't been recovered and his death doesn't seem quite real, but mostly because Jenkins is convinced that if everyone had done their job correctly that night, Milushev and her dad might have been rescued.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the plane's disappearance and the handling of it by airport officials. The big question, for Jenkins and others, is this: Why did an employee at our local airport tell Seattle-based air traffic controllers that the plane had landed when it had not? It may have been a simple case of mistaking one plane for another (and FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said such mistakes happen all the time), but in this case it delayed Coast Guard rescue efforts until the following morning.
NTSB Investigator Kurt Anderson said last week that his agency is interviewing the people involved and gathering data, including radar images of the flight and audio recordings of Milushev's communications with the Seattle control center. The agency could decide to enact new safety measures, and County Public Works Director Thomas Mattson said Friday that extra precautions have already been enacted to prevent such a mistake from happening again. But that might not be enough to satisfy the victims' families.
Last week, Jenkins and Gustafson's wife, Judi, traveled from Florida to look for answers. "I was saying, 'Until there's a body, my dad's not dead,'" Jenkins said. They met with local Coast Guard members ("the nicest people I've ever met," Jenkins said) who drove them around Trinidad Head and pointed to where the plane might have gone down. The jagged coastline, so different from the flat beaches of south Florida, helped Jenkins understand what must have happened. At the Sheriff's Department, officers brought out a cardboard box with pieces of debris that had washed ashore. "To think that was all that was left," Jenkins said, "that was sad." She was told that airport personnel discovered their mistake when they opened for business the following morning. That would have been at 6 a.m. And yet the Coast Guard wasn't notified until 11:45 a.m., she said.
At the airport, an assistant asked them to wait for County Airports Manager Jacqueline Hulsey. When the assistant returned, Jenkins said, she informed them that Hulsey had left for the day, that in fact, she would be gone for several days. Jenkins asked if they could reach her by cell phone. The assistant said they couldn't because Hulsey's battery died and, besides, she'd left the phone on her desk. When the Journal reached Hulsey on Monday after numerous attempts over more than a week, she said she was in a meeting and would have to call back. She failed to do so by press time.
Since returning to Florida, Jenkins learned that more debris has been recovered, including a piece with the missing plane's serial number. She now accepts that her dad died that night. "But I still have questions," she said. Like those Coast Guard members, Jenkins can't help thinking that Milushev and her dad could have been recovered that night -- their bodies, if not their lives. A memorial service will be held this weekend at one of Gustafson's favorite restaurants. It's more informal celebration than funeral: Attendees have been encouraged to wear Harley Davidson and Miami Dolphin gear. Jenkins, though, will be wearing black, "cuz I'm the kid and I'm not supposed to listen," she said. Plus, she has just begun to truly grieve. "I used to get a text or e-mail from him every day," she said, her voice catching slightly. "And every day I don't get one I think, 'Wow, he's really not calling.'"
Jenkins will return to Humboldt County for Memorial Day. The Trinidad Civic Club will be adding Gustafson and Milushev's names to the Trinidad Head Memorial Lighthouse plaques honoring those who have died at sea.