Thomas Saxon and Robert Schupbach both loved flying planes. They also loved jumping out of them. So what if everyone else thought they were crazy, as Schupbach assumed — it’s what made he and Saxon good friends.
“He made an excellent partner — even though he was much bigger than me, we were able to maintain our fall rate together, just because so many times we jumped together,” said Schupbach, who met Saxon through a skydiving club about five years ago. "He made me feel safe, and I made him feel safe.”
Soon after the two became friends, Schupbach remembered, he asked his skydiving buddy to become a co-owner of his 1973 single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza. The plane required expensive maintenance, Schupbach said, but they could handle it between the two of them.
Saxon, 61, died Tuesday morning when the Bonanza crashed into a backyard in Wesley Chapel. Though the plane came down in the well-populated Grand Oaks subdivision, it missed houses and residents. No one else was injured.
Investigators from the Federal Aviation Authority went to the scene. The National Transportation Safety Board, which publishes the results of investigations into plane crashes, has yet to release a preliminary report. Neither agency has publicly determined the cause of the accident. The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office on Wednesday identified Saxon as the pilot.
Flight data, tracked by the website FlightAware, show that the plane safely completed a 14-minute flight from Clearwater — where Schupbach said the plane was based — to Tampa North Flight and Rental Center, just west of Interstate 75 in the Wesley Chapel area. It landed at 9:53 a.m. Tuesday. The plane took off again at 10:40 a.m., first heading north and then east before circling back toward the airfield.
It crashed 12 minutes later, just a few thousand feet from the airfield.
The FAA classified the damage as “substantial.” Images and footage broadcast by WFTS-Ch. 28 showed flames and smoke rising from the debris. The Bonanza’s wings appeared to be shorn off.
Robert Katz, a flight instructor and veteran pilot in Texas who closely tracks plane crashes across the country, said what he could see of the crash’s aftermath made him suspect corrosion had damaged the plane, causing the wings to come off. It’s an issue Katz said he’s seen before in older airplanes in coastal communities, where the nearby saltwater encourages corrosion.
“It makes it easy for the wings to snap off — in what was a perfect flying weather day," he said. “Everyone in that neighborhood is lucky to be alive.”
Schupbach said he had no idea why the plane crashed.
“The maintenance was excellent,” he said. "The plane was kept up — this is why I took Tom in as a partner in the first place.”
Ongoing maintenance had actually caused the plane to stay on the ground for much of the past year, Schupbach said. That included the installment of new navigation equipment, he said, as well as an annual inspection.
Schupbach didn’t know much about his friend’s personal life, he said — they mostly talked about flying and skydiving. He said Saxon was retired and owned some rental properties in Madeira Beach, where he also lived. He was a proud Marine veteran, Schupbach said, and had the branch’s insignia on his parachute container.
Saxon’s wife, Cindy, declined to comment on Wednesday. Thomas Saxon served as a Madeira Beach city commissioner in the late 1990s, according to stories in the then-St. Petersburg Times. He made a living running more than two dozen veterans centers across the southeast, according to one of those stories.
Schupbach said Saxon just felt comfortable in the sky.
“We are a different breed," Schupbach said. "We had that in common.”