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Santa Rosa couple killed in plane crash near Sonoma County Airport

Federal aviation officials began their investigation Friday of a single-engine plane crash near the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport that killed two people on a flight home from Palm Springs.

A sheriff’s spokeswoman identified the victims as pilot Donald Gordon Mackenzie, 69, and Marsha Gail Gastwirth, 68, both of Santa Rosa.

Friends said Mackenzie owned a tech industry business and was a board member of the Pacific Coast Air Museum. Gastwirth was the owner of a wine tourism business.

“It shocked us all. It was very hard to take,” said Connie Reyerse, the air museum’s director of operations. “He was fairly close to many of us here.”

Larry Carrillo, a former museum board member, said the longtime couple had flown from Santa Rosa to Palm Springs on Wednesday afternoon to take care of business connected to Gastwirth’s late father’s estate. They were guests in Carrillo’s second home there, he said.

On Thursday, Carrillo said he drove the two back to the airport and they took off for Santa Rosa between 3:30 and 4 p.m. The flight time in Mackenzie’s six-cylinder Piper Comanche was about three hours, he said.

They were making their approach to the county airport in drizzly conditions when they crashed around 7 p.m., less than one mile south of the runway.

Carrillo said the plane had adequate fuel for the trip and speculated wet weather may have been a factor. The cloud ceiling was at 900 feet, an airport manager said, and it was raining off and on.

“There has to be a certain amount of visibility,” said Carrillo, who also is on the airport commission. “Mist is difficult.”

The couple lived in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood. Mackenzie had been a museum board member for about two years.

Reyerse said Mackenzie was “very diligent in our financial marketing. He was good to work with and very pleasant.”

Sgt. Cecile Focha said the victims’ family members were informed of their deaths. A forensic examiner conducted autopsies, she said.

The plane crashed in a grassy field at the end of Wood Ranch Road, about 100 yards from an occupied house. Mackenzie and Gastwirth were killed on impact, emergency responders said.

Stephen Stein, air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, said teams from his agency and the Federal Aviation Administration combed the wreckage Friday.

He said the plane was in communication with the Sonoma County Airport tower when it went down. He did not know the nature of the communication and said the plane did not send a distress signal. Other information such as its last known altitude or air speed was not released.

In the days ahead, inspectors will transport the wreckage to a facility in Sacramento to study it more closely. They also will check maintenance records and look at the pilot’s history, he said.

Other factors to be considered are weather, visibility and lighting, he said.

It could take more than a year to determine a cause, Stein said. He declined to speculate on a preliminary finding.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas. You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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