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A retired Marine Corps officer and environmental consultant for the Sonoma County Water Agency was killed late Friday when his single-engine plane crashed near the Petaluma Municipal Airport after takeoff.

Carl Morrison, 75, was flying his 1990 Mooney M20J propeller-driven plane from the airport back home to San Diego County after a work trip north, according to his family. Morrison, an attorney and vice commander of the Pacific Region’s Civil Air Patrol, was an experienced private pilot who often flew his plane for meetings around the country.

“We love him and we will miss him,” said the eldest of his six children, Bob Morrison, 51, of Murrieta. “If my dad wanted to be remembered for anything it would be how much he loved his family.”

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and National Transportation Safety Board were investigating the crash. The plane’s wreckage was found in a field off Manor Lane, about two miles northeast of the Petaluma airport, according to sheriff’s officials.

Friends and work colleagues voiced deep sorrow over Morrison’s sudden death. It came during the type of storm, an atmospheric river, for which he sought to expand research to help bolster regional water supplies.

“He had the most wonderful disposition,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a Water Agency director. “He was always positive, and always smiling — just a wonderful human being. We can’t even imagine our team without him — it’s just devastating.”

Col. Jon Stokes with the Civil Air Patrol said Morrison joined the nonprofit organization, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, in 2006 and quickly rose through the ranks. The group helps with search and rescue, disaster response and other aviation training.

Stokes said Morrison frequently made the round-trip flight between Petaluma and his home in Fallbrook, about an hour north of San Diego, for work. He was a technically skilled, instrument-rated pilot, which made the circumstances of his death that much more difficult to fathom, Stokes said.

“It’s a very sad day,” said Stokes. “He was a very smart and insightful individual, and it’s a loss to the organization and his family, but also just to our community and people in general. Carl was a great man.”

Morrison was a Vietnam war veteran who served 20 years in the Marine Corps, retiring as a lawyer and public affairs officer in 1986 with the rank of lieutenant colonel, according to his law office website. He graduated from Brigham Young University in 1966 before obtaining a law degree from DePaul University in Chicago in 1976. He earned two master’s degrees, from Loyola University and George Washington University.

Following his military service, Morrison started a public relations and environmental consulting firm before founding his law firm in 1995. The office was located at the Fallbrook Airpark.

Morrison was a devout Mormon and held a high-ranking position at his church, according to friends. He had a large family and often boasted about his six children and 23 grandchildren.

Bob Morrison said his father was in excellent health and was a cautious and prepared pilot who was capable flying in rough weather conditions but unlikely to take risks.

“It’s a plane he has flown for years,” Morrison said of the father’s aircraft. “He was meticulous at keeping it maintained … I guess anytime you fly in a plane you take a risk, but my father was the safest pilot I knew.”

Carl Morrison’s family expected him to depart Petaluma about 5 p.m. and land about three hours later, his son said.

And records show he received clearance to take off about 5 p.m. from traffic control, said Sonoma County sheriff’s Sgt. Henri Boustany said. It’s unclear what happened next.

At 6:51 p.m. the state Office of Emergency Services called Petaluma police reporting an emergency signal was originating from a small plane in eastern Petaluma, Boustany said. Officers checked the city’s airstrip. Police then contacted the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office, which sent deputies to his destination airstrip to determine whether Morrison’s plane had landed.

Bob Morrison said he believed it was sometime after 8 p.m., around the time his father was due to land, when a San Diego County sheriff’s deputy knocked on his mother Mary Morrison’s door and asked if her husband had returned home. He hadn’t.

Then about 8:20 p.m. the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center contacted the Sheriff’s Office to report the plane’s emergency signal and provide coordinates for a potential crash site.

Sheriff’s deputies responded to the coordinates on Sonoma Mountain, but could not immediately find the plane. After 10 p.m., they spotted a small fire that turned out to be wreckage at the crash site, in a remote ravine near the 3600 block of Manor Lane. Morrison was the lone occupant in the downed plane.

The Sonoma County Coroner did not name him as the pilot Saturday.

As a result of the weather and darkness, deputies secured the area and contacted the NTSB, which will investigate the cause of the crash. A spokesman with the Federal Aviation Administration said Saturday morning that the circumstances of the crash were unknown.

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