The wreckage of a Cessna Centurion airplane rests in a wooded area just east of the Burlington Municipal Airport following a crash Friday evening. The plane’s pilot, David Schmutzler, 80, of Port Washington died Saturday from injuries suffered in the crash. (Photo by Roger Bieneman)

Investigators search for clues in crash that killed veteran pilot

By Ed Nadolski

Editor in Chief

The late pilot of a single-engine plane that crashed in a wooded area just east of the Burlington Municipal Airport Friday evening was an Air Force veteran, flight instructor and experienced pilot who began flying at age 11.

The question that now lingers for investigators is what happened?

David Schmutzler, 80, of Port Washington died Saturday at Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa as a result of injuries suffered in the crash, which occurred about 6:15 p.m. Friday.

Schmutzler had flown from West Bend to Burlington Friday to work with a mechanic who had recently installed a piece of equipment on the plane, his wife Barbara Bode said.

He was in Burlington most of Friday afternoon, she said, and was on his way back to West Bend when he experienced problems with the plane. He turned around and was headed back to the Burlington airport when the crash occurred.

Racine County Medical Examiner Michael Payne said an autopsy was performed Monday in Milwaukee and the results have been shared with the Federal Aviation Administration, which is the lead agency in the investigation.

Payne said the autopsy could help the FAA determine whether a medical issue played a role in the crash.

Investigators will also comb through the wreckage for any clues to the cause, according to Mike Pieczynski of the FAA’s Milwaukee Field Office.

“We try to make a determination of what happened – whether it had a power failure or some other issue,” he said. “We’ve got to look at all aspects and talk to a lot of people.”

The wreckage was removed from the crash site Monday and was taken to a hangar where investigators will begin the process, which could take up to a year to complete, according to Pieczynski.

He said the FAA investigation is conducted along with a parallel probe handled by the National Transportation Safety Board.


A family mourns

Schmutzler was owner and president of Jadair International of Port Washington, according to his obituary. The company makes water recycling and solid reclamation equipment for agricultural, mining and industrial uses.

Schmutzler’s family said he will be sorely missed by those closest to him as well as those in the aviation community.

“David never stopped working, praying and believing in the work and success of his products and his flying,” his obituary reads. “He had a strong faith and hope that drove his life missions. He had a passion for flying and enjoyed his work as a sea plane, single- and multi-engine flight instructor.”

Schmutzler is survived by his wife, three children, three stepchildren and eight grandchildren, according to the obituary.

Burlington resident Roger Bieneman, whose property is adjacent to the crash site, said members of Schmutzler’s family visited the crash site Saturday and again Monday.

“They were looking for signs of what happened,” Bieneman said. “It’s sad because the wings were bent back and the wheels were broken, but the cockpit was in good condition.”

Schmutzler’s wife said her husband had logged more than 15,000 hours in the air and had been flying since he was 11.

Bieneman, who was on scene as emergency responders arrived, confirmed dispatch radio transmissions that Schmutzler was conscious and speaking to rescuers as he was being extricated from the plane.


Neighbor heard a ‘boom’

Bieneman said he was in his house and didn’t hear the crash, but said his “neighbor heard a big boom and thought it was my bridge (collapsing).”

Bieneman owns a historic 1877 truss bridge that spans the White River.   The crash site is north of Chestnut Street and just east of Bieneman Road.

Bieneman said early reports within the community that the plane hit his bridge were false. The deck of the bridge was damaged by a City of Burlington fire engine and the matter has been turned over to his insurance company. He said his property is also accessible off Honey Lake Road from the north.

Bieneman said it appeared the plane, a Cessna Centurion, came in too low on approach to the airport and clipped some trees before crashing.

“When it touched the tops of the trees, it came down pretty fast,” he said. “I’m surprised it didn’t land on its nose.”

The plane crashed on property owned by Jason and Minah Miley – about 50 yards from the couple’s home, according to Bienemann.

The crash was reported by a person who was fishing in the White River adjacent to the crash site, Bieneman said.

City of Burlington police and fire departments responded along with units from the Racine County Sheriff’s Department, Town of Burlington Fire Department and the Village of Rochester Volunteer Fire Company, according to Burlington Police Chief Mark Anderson.

Rescue personnel tended to Schmutzler and extricated him from the plane before he was transported to Aurora Medical Center, Burlington. He was later taken to Froedtert Hospital for additional treatment, according to a City of Burlington news release.

He had several surgeries before he died at 12:52 a.m. Saturday, his wife said. His family was with him.

Local responders were on scene for about 3-1/2 hours, according to Anderson, who referred further questions to the FAA.

“They are the lead agency in this case,” Anderson said. “When it comes to this type of incident, we always rely on the FAA and their expertise.”

Kristyn Halbig Ziehm of the Ozaukee Press contributed to this story.

For additional coverage of the crash, including an interview with the pilot’s wife, see the the May 21 edition of the Burlington Standard Press.