Wolfgang G. Buergel of East Aurora, a legend in the Western New York aviation community, died Friday when his single-engine plane crashed in a rural area near Columbia, S.C., as he was making his annual flight to Sun N' Fun, an aviation convention in Lakeland, Fla.
Authorities said Buergel, 71, the only person on board, crashed about 2:50 p.m. Friday at the edge of a field in Elgin, Kershaw County, not far from a small private airport.
Witnesses reported that they saw the plane circling a field near Interstate 20 with its engine sputtering before it plunged into trees, exploded and burned.
Buergel had taken off Friday morning from a Buffalo area airport, authorities said, and had not planned to stop in South Carolina. The National Transportation Safety Authority is investigating. The cause of the crash has not yet been determined.
Buergel was a pilot, airplane mechanic, flight instructor and proprietor of a grass airstrip called Bloecher Farm Airport that he built on a hilltop east of East Aurora in 1974. He taught hundreds of Western New Yorkers including his children, Christopher and Tina, how to fly using stick and rudder.
Known for his quick wit and unconventional personality, he would often preface his remarks by saying, "I'm just a country pilot," but it understated his considerable skills as a flyer and a mechanic.
He maintained several small planes in the Bloecher Farm Airport hangar. He completely rebuilt the aircraft he was flying to Florida last week -- an orange and blue 1950 Piper PA20 Pacer, a plane prized for its ruggedness and versatility -- and made it his traveling plane. He had acquired it in 1969, his second plane.
"This was a basket case, literally: bushel baskets and boxes of parts," Buergel told a writer for Plane and Pilot magazine a few years ago. "It had kind of a bad history. It crashed the first year of its life, and by the time it was four or five years old, a hangar collapsed on it. I'm the sucker who finally took it home."
Born in Germany, he built model airplanes as a boy and moved with his family in 1954 to Long Island, where his father worked at Grumman, building airplanes. After he graduated from high school, he enlisted in the Army, where he became a helicopter mechanic and earned his pilot's license at the base flying club.
He later earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Fredonia State College and a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University at Buffalo. Unhappy working in the chemical industry, he decided to follow his first love -- flying. He started an aircraft repair station -- East Aurora Aviation -- and later worked for USAirways as a mechanic.
Surviving are his wife of 47 years, Sandy, and his son and daughter.
A memorial service will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in St. John's United Church of Christ, 608 Centerline Road, Strykersville.