Multiple agencies probe plane crash

Debris collected over the weekend

Authorities from La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the Friday morning crash of a World War II-era P-51 Mustang that killed two area residents.

Information about the cause of the crash has not yet been released.

Durango Fire Marshal Karola Hanks said there are good eyewitness accounts.

Officials called on heavy equipment to remove debris, collected as evidence, and several investigators roamed the crash site this weekend.

The plane went down just outside airport property in a pasture near BP facilities and the San Juan Forest Air Tanker Base on the county road.

“It was short distance,” said the airport’s Director of Aviation Kip Tuner. “It appears that it crashed in some shape or fashion on takeoff, not very far from the airport at all.”

Tuner said he wasn’t sure how often the aircraft was flown, but it has been at the airfield only within the last year.

Although the county coroner has not verified identities of the victims, Michael Schlarb’s wife, Monie, confirmed he and John Earley, who owned the aircraft, both died in the crash, which occurred just before 9:30 a.m. Friday.

Earley, CEO of Saddle Butte Pipeline, and his P-51 Mustang were featured in a story on April 10, 2014, in The Cortez Journal, conveying his appreciation for the vintage fighter. His father was a pilot, and his grandfather flew bombers during World War II. In the story, he called it a “childhood dream to shepherd a Mustang.”

Schlarb also loved to fly. Hanks said after a career with the Durango Fire Protection Department, he left to follow his dreams.

A respected flight instructor and fixed-wing pilot for TriState CareFlight, he had been training Earley.

He called the instruction in the rare aircraft a special case.

“It’ll put a smile on your face every time you fly it,” he said, and described a challenging airplane that demanded respect.

The powerful, antique P-51 Mustangs are worth approximately $2 million.