I knew something was wrong when I had several cell phone messages from one of my flying club’s assistant chief instructors.
A cargo plane had gone down and two of our coworkers who recently had gone to work for that company were not answering their cell phones. She asked me to use my reporter resources to get information. Minutes later she called back and tearfully reported that one of our own, Josh Dierks, who was all of 27 years old, was dead. The Chieftain he was flying had developed a power problem as he crossed the Cascade Mountains. He crashed while trying to make an emergency landing at a rural airstrip.
I have lost friends in aircraft accidents before, but not one as close to me as Josh was. The Saturday before the crash we had spent some time together at the Northwest EAA Fly-In and Sport Aviation Convention at Arlington. Josh was there for the first time as a tourist. Usually he had to work the show for the flight school. As I had been there on assignment for a day already, he asked me what was a “must see” at the show. A few months earlier, we had created a PowerPoint seminar together on the G1000 for the flying club. I wrote the text and Josh took the photos. Josh was hired by the cargo company about three weeks before we did the seminar, but he came back to help me present it. He was wearing his club uniform of khakis and the company-issued polo shirt.
“The uniform still fits,” he joked, patting his stomach.
Boyish and charming, with a quick smile, a passion for aviation and a broad depth of aviation knowledge — not to mention a good stick — Josh was a favorite of both staff and clients of the club. Once when he fell asleep in an armchair in the lobby someone took the Polaroid camera we use to photograph clients after solos and check rides and snapped his photo. “Visions of sugarplums dancing in my head” was written on it. The photo was posted on Josh’s cubicle and, good sport that he was, he left it there.
Josh was the pilot who gave me my C-172SP check out. The day we were flying, the Collings Foundation bombers were visiting the field. While on downwind we were bounced around by the wake turbulence left by the B-17. Josh commented on it and I replied, “That’s the wake of freedom, baby!” in an exaggerated deep voice and we both started grunting in a burlesque of macho appreciation.
Although we know death is a part of aviation, lurking on the periphery of each flight like a malignant specter, I don’t think anyone is truly prepared for it. We weren’t. The night of his death was a blur of frenzied activity. A command structure was established quickly. Tasks were delegated. His wife, who was traveling abroad, needed to be contacted. The media were descending on the crash site and the airport. Coworkers had to be notified. I stayed at the General Aviation News office tracking down information about the accident and leads to help locate his wife. We were able to pull together, each finding it within ourselves to do what the chief pilot asked of us. We were more than a team. We were a family.
The next day we gathered to comfort one another. We put on our business faces in public and went about our jobs. No one wanted to fly, but did if they were scheduled. Some grounded themselves, knowing full well that for a time they would not have their heads in the game. Silent hugs were exchanged, as the feeling of grief was ineffable.
The Dierks Memorial Fund was created at Bank of America to help his family with expenses. Photos of Josh were gathered to be burned onto a CD that would be presented to his wife. “How are you holding up?” replaced “Hello” as a greeting at the airport.
Ironically, one of the recent discussions at the club was how to generate more camaraderie among the staff. Josh’s final legacy is that he pulled us together.
General Aviation News Senior Editor Tom Norton, who sadly has much experience in this area, offered these words: “One of the things you learn, if you fly long enough, is that you are going to lose friends. That’s especially true in military flying and, happily, less so for airline pilots than it was before the advent of turbines.
“I’m sure you’ve seen the old movies, where the guys in the ops shack refuse to mourn and the heroine berates them for hardness of heart. They were only movies, but they reflected real life to a surprisingly realistic extent, as Gann fans know. Learning how to deal with these awful things in a tough-minded way isn’t at all easy, but it is the key to surviving an aviation career with your emotions more-or-less intact.”
He’s right of course.
But that doesn’t mean we will miss Josh any less.
Meg Godlewski is GAN’s staff reporter and a Master CFI.